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Title: A Living Lie
Author: Bourget, Paul
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A LIVING LIE


(MENSONGES)



BY

PAUL BOURGET



TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH

BY

JOHN DE VILLIERS



NEW YORK

R. F. FENNO & COMPANY

112 FIFTH AVENUE

LONDON: CHATTO & WINDUS



CONTENTS
I. A Provincial Corner of Paris
II. Simple Souls
III. A Lover and a Snob
IV. The 'Sigisbée'
V. The Dawn of Love
VI. An Observer's Logic
VII. The Face of a Madonna
VIII. The Other Side of the Picture
IX. An Actress in Real Life
X. In the Toils
XI. Declarations
XII. Cruel to be Kind
XIII. At Home
XIV. Happy Days
XV. Colette's Spite
XVI. The Story of a Suspicion
XVII. Proofs
XVIII. The Happiest of the Four
XIX. All or Nothing
XX. The Abbé Taconet



MY DEAR DE VILLIERS,


In the first place, you must let me thank you for having undertaken the
task of introducing 'Mensonges' to the English-reading public; and also
express the hope that this novel, which is no longer new, may not cause
a recurrence of that misconception which too often arises when a work
written in and for a Latin country is suddenly transplanted to
Anglo-Saxon soil.

One of the most grievous results of such misconception, and one which
French writers--I speak from experience--feel most keenly, is the
reproach of immorality. Balzac spent a lifetime in defending himself
against that charge; so it was with Flaubert; so it is with Emile Zola.
I well remember how hurt I felt myself when, in the course of an action
brought some ten years since against a publishing firm in London--who
had, by the way, issued a translation of the work without my
permission--'Un Crime d'Amour' was harshly spoken of by one of your
judges. Not only then, but on many occasions, have I had an opportunity
of remarking that the English regard the novelist's art from a
standpoint differing entirely from that taken up by French writers. That
difference is well worth dwelling upon here, for the problem it raises
is neither more nor less than the problem of the whole art of
novel-writing.

To French writers--and I refer more particularly to the great school
which follows Balzac and Stendhal--the first quality of that art is
analytical precision. Balzac called himself 'a doctor of social
sciences.' Stendhal-Beyle, when asked his profession, used to reply,
'Observer of the human heart'; and upon the title-page of 'Rouge et
Noir' he wrote as a motto the significant words, 'The truth, the ugly
truth.' Every word of Flaubert's correspondence breathes forth the
conviction that the novelist must always and before all else paint life
as it is. These writers and their disciples do but follow, consciously
or unconsciously, the scientific movement of the age. They are
sociologists and psychologists who write in an imaginative form. The
attitude they usually take up towards the object they are studying is
explained by the fact that, as analysts, they are obliged to assume that
absolute indifference to morality or immorality which should animate
every _savant_ whilst pursuing his investigations.

For them the whole question resolves itself into this: they must look
the bare realities of life full in the face, reproduce them with
absolute fidelity, and reject nothing they find; it should be their aim
to produce a work of truth rather than a work of beauty. That is why
Balzac, for example, did not hesitate, in 'Splendeurs et Misères des
Courtisanes,' and in 'La Cousine Bette,' to lay bare with the brutal
bluntness of a police report the lowest depths of Parisian vice. That,
too, is why Flaubert had no compunction in placing before the readers of
his 'Madame Bovary' the repulsive picture of Emma and Léon meeting in a
house of ill-fame in Rouen. In his conception of imaginative literature
the writer takes no heed of what will please or displease, what will
comfort or afflict, what will affect or disgust. His aim is to add one
document more to the mass of information concerning mankind and society
collected by physiology, psychology, and the history of languages,
creeds, and institutions. The novelist is merely a chronicler of actual
life, and the value of his testimony lies in its truth.

It is easy to see, as I shall presently prove, that these æsthetics are
intimately related to that great principle of intellectual
conscientiousness which, under the name of science, animates the present
age; and this relationship would in itself endow with idealism an art
which has apparently no ideal. But a big objection to these theories has
long been formulated--an objection that seems to spring up most readily
in English minds when confronted with the bold utterances such theories
authorise. The novel, it is said, necessarily appeals to the popular
taste and places its impress upon the imagination of readers who are
totally devoid of the ideal impartiality of those who take up a
scientific standpoint. When such readers dip into a work like
'Splendeurs et Misères' or 'Madame Bovary,' they at once enter into the
very life and spirit with which these books are permeated. The author's
genius, reproducing in vivid colours scenes of questionable morality,
makes them almost real, and to man, naturally imitative, such studies
form a standing danger. If a bad example is contagious in real life,
surely, it is urged, it is none the less so when enhanced by the magic
of a master's style.

I do not think that, in stating the case for the other side I have
weakened their argument. At the first glance, it seems irrefutable. I
think, however, that novelists of the school of Balzac and Flaubert may
justly reply that the morality of a book is something totally distinct
from the danger that its perusal presents. Before deciding whether the
total effect of a certain class of literature is worth the danger it
incurs, it would be necessary to ascertain how far a work has been
properly or improperly understood by all its readers. I, for my part, am
fully convinced that the safety of society is absolutely dependent upon
a true knowledge of human life, and that every work composed in a spirit
of truth is on that account alone conducive of good. If the work
occasionally shocks or offends a reader, it is none the less certain
that it adds to the knowledge of the laws governing the minds and
passions of men. Now, it is impossible to cite an example where the
general conclusions drawn by a novelist of the analytical school have
ever been contrary to the eternal laws set forth in the Decalogue.

Balzac might well have headed the last part of his 'Splendeurs et
Misères' with this prophetic admonition from the Scriptures, _The way
of the ungodly shall perish._ Flaubert could have chosen no better
epigraph for the title-page of 'Madame Bovary' than the Seventh
Commandment; and, if a modest disciple may be permitted to compare
himself with these great masters, and his humble productions with their
superior works, the novel now presented to the English public has its
moral in the words addressed by the Abbé Taconet to Claude Larcher and
in the lesson of social Christianity they teach.

These few remarks are necessary for the comprehension of passages in the
following pages that might be considered crude outside the Parisian
circle in which they were written. When 'Mensonges' was first published,
nearly ten years ago, it was generally admitted that the picture was
very faithfully drawn. On the other hand, it evoked a lively discussion
in the Press concerning the value of the process by which this study had
been produced--in other words, the value of psychological analysis.

Eminent critics reproached me with carrying the dissection of motives
too far, and with too frequently laying bare the exquisitely delicate
fibres of the heart. I well remember that amongst my masters Alexandre
Dumas was most assiduous in warning me of the dangers of my method. 'It
is a very fine thing to show how a watch works,' he would say to me,
'but not if by doing so you prevent it from telling the time.'

That all life is, to a great extent, unconscious is perfectly true, and
a psychological analyst may therefore imperil the beauty of the
particular life he proposes to describe by bringing into undue
prominence and bestowing too much care upon its hidden workings. So far
as I am concerned, I am quite willing to own that in so doing I may have
deserved reproach; but I am persuaded that, if such be the case, the
fault is mine and not that of the method employed. Every work of art, if
critically considered, will be found to contain incongruities which the
genius of the artist must conceal. The drama, for instance, in its use
of dialogue, must compress into a few minutes conversations that would,
in reality, occupy whole hours. It would therefore seem _a priori_ as if
all semblance of truth were in that case impossible. In the same way a
lyric poet, by attempting to express in scholarly rhyme and in verse of
complicated structure the most simple and spontaneous feelings of the
heart, would seem to undertake a most paradoxical, I had almost said an
absurd, task. And yet the dialogue of a Shakespeare or of a Molière has
all the movement and colour of life itself. Heine's _Lieder_ and
Shelley's lyrics are real vibrations of the heart; and, to come back to
the psychological novel, I may surely hold up the works of George Eliot,
Tourguenieff, and Tolstoi in reply to the objection that a too minute
analysis of character and feeling substitutes a dry anatomical study for
the glow and ardour of passion. If 'Mensonges' may not be added to the
list, it can only be because its author has not the necessary skill to
wield what is, after all, a most excellent instrument.

These are a few of the ideas which I beg you to lay before the readers
of the English version of my story in order that their hearts may be
inclined to indulgence before they turn to the work itself. Allow me to
thank you, as well as MM. Chatto and Windus, once more for having
thought this study of Parisian life worthy the distinction of such a
careful and masterly translation as yours.

Believe me,

Yours very faithfully,

PAUL BOURGET.

HYÈRES, _January_ 30, 1896.



A LIVING LIE



CHAPTER I

A PROVINCIAL CORNER OF PARIS


'The gates are closed, sir,' said the driver, bending down from his box.

'Closed at half-past nine!' exclaimed a voice from the interior of the
cab. 'What a place to live in! You needn't trouble to get down. The
pavement's dry--I'll walk.'

The door of the vehicle swung open, and a young man stepped gingerly
out, pulling the collar of his fur-lined coat a little more closely
about his throat. The dainty patent-leather shoes that left just an inch
of the embroidered silk socks visible, the plain black trousers and
opera hat, showed that the wearer was in evening dress. The cab was one
of those superior conveyances that ply for hire outside the Paris clubs,
and the driver, little accustomed to this provincial corner of the city,
began to peer, with almost as much interest as his fare, into the
strange street that, although situated on the borders of the Faubourg
Saint-Germain, had such an old-world look about it. At the time we write
of--the beginning of February, 1879--the Rue Coëtlogon, running from
the Rue d'Assas to the Rue de Rennes, still possessed the peculiarity of
being shut off from the rest of the world by gates, while at night it
was lit up by an oil lamp, hanging, in the old-fashioned way, from a
rope swung right across the roadway. Since then the appearance of the
place has changed a good deal. The mysterious-looking house on the
right, standing in its own bit of garden, and affording no doubt a quiet
retreat to some retiring old dame, has disappeared. The vacant land,
that rendered the Rue Coëtlogon as inaccessible to vehicles on the one
side as did the iron gates on the other, has been cleared of its heaps
of stones. Gas jets have taken the place of the oil lamp, and only a
slight unevenness in the pavement now marks the position of the posts
upon which the gates hung. These were never locked, but only swung to at
night; there was therefore no necessity for the young man to pull the
bell, but before entering the narrow lane he stopped for a few moments
to take in the strange scene presented by the dark outline of the houses
on the left, the garden on the right, a confused mass of unfinished
buildings at the bottom, and the old oil lamp in the middle. Overhead a
bright wintry moon hung in the vast expanse of the heavens, through
which sped a few swift-sailing clouds. As they scudded across the face
of the moon, and flew off into the dark immensity beyond, they seemed
only to enhance the metallic brilliancy of the luminary by the momentary
shadow they cast in sweeping by.

'What a scene it would make for a parting!' murmured the young man,
adding, in a somewhat louder tone:


Until the hour when from the vault above us
Glares down the frowning visage of the moon . . .


Had any observant passer-by happened to hear these two lines from Victor
Hugo he would have recognised a man of letters by the way in which they
were delivered. The solitary speaker bore indeed a name well to the fore
in the literature of the day. But names so quickly disappear and get
forgotten in the incessant onward rush of new works, self-assertive
claims, and fleeting reputations that the successes of ten years ago
seem as distant and as vague as those of another age. Two dramas of
modern life, a little too directly inspired by the younger Dumas, had
brought this young man--he was thirty-five or more, but he looked barely
thirty--momentary renown, and he had not yet spoilt his name by putting
it at the bottom of hastily written articles or upon the covers of
indifferent novels. He was known only as the author of 'La Goule' and
'Entre Adultères,' two plays of unequal merit, full of a pessimism
frequently conventional, but powerful in their trenchant analysis, their
smart dialogue, and their painful striving after the Ideal. In 1879
these plays were already three years old, and Claude Larcher, who had
allowed himself to drift into a life of idle pleasure, was beginning to
accept lucrative and easy work, being no longer fit to make any fresh
and long-sustained effort.

Like many analytical writers, he was accustomed to study and probe
himself incessantly, though all his introspection had not the least
influence upon his actions. The most trifling occurrences served as a
pretext for indulging in examination of himself and his destiny, but
long-continued dualism of this kind only resulted in keeping his
perceptive faculties uselessly and painfully alert. The sight of this
peaceful street and the thought of Victor Hugo immediately reminded him
of the resolutions he had been vainly formulating for some months past
to lead a retired life of regular work. He reflected that he had a novel
on order for a magazine, a play to write that had already been accepted,
and reviews to send to a 'daily,' whilst, instead of being seated at his
table in the Rue de Varenne, here he was gadding about at ten o'clock at
night dressed like an idler and a snob. He would pass the remainder of
the evening and a part of the night at a _soirée_ given by the Comtesse
Komof, a Russian lady of fashion living in Paris, whose receptions at
the grand mansion in the Rue de Bel-Respiro were as magnificent as they
were mixed. He was about to do even worse. He had come to fetch another
writer, ten years younger than himself, who had till that moment led
precisely the noble life of hard work for which he himself so longed, in
one of the houses in this modest and quiet Rue Coëtlogon.

René Vincy--that was the name of his young colleague--had just leapt
with one bound into the full glare of publicity, thanks to one of those
strokes of literary luck which do not occur twice in a generation. The
'Sigisbée,' a comedy in one act and in verse, a fanciful, dreamy work,
written without any hopes of practical success, had brought him sudden
fame. Like our dear François Coppée's 'Le Passant,' it had taken the
_blasé_ capital by storm, and had called forth not only unanimous
applause in the Théâtre Français, but a chorus of praise in the
newspapers next day. Of this astonishing success Claude could claim a
share. Was he not the first in whose hands the manuscript of the
'Sigisbée' had been placed? Had he not taken it to Colette Rigaud, the
famous actress of the House of Molière? And Colette, having fallen in
love with the principal part, had smoothed away all obstacles. It was
he, Claude Larcher, who, consulted by Madame Komof upon the choice of a
play to be performed in her _salon_, had suggested the 'Sigisbée;' the
Comtesse had acted upon his suggestion, and the performance was to take
place that evening. Claude, who had undertaken to chaperon the young
poet, had come at the appointed hour to the Rue Coëtlogon, where René
Vincy lived with his married sister.

This extreme kindness of an already successful author towards a mere
novice was not entirely devoid of a tinge of irony and pride. Claude
Larcher, who spent his time in slandering the wealthy and cosmopolitan
world in which the Comtesse Komof moved, and in which he himself was
always mixing, felt his vanity slightly tickled by being able to dazzle
his friend with the glamour of his fashionable connections. At the same
time the malicious cynic was amused by the simplicity of the poet and by
his childish awe of that magic and meaningless word--Society. He had
already enjoyed, as much as a play, Vincy's shyness during their first
visit to the Comtesse a few days before, and thoughts of the fever of
expectancy in which René must now be made him smile as he approached
the house in which his young friend lived.

'And to think that I was just as foolish as that once!' he murmured,
remembering that he, too, as well as René, had had his _début_; then
he thought, 'That is a feeling of which those who have always lived in
that kind of world have no idea; and how absurd it is for us to go and
visit these people!'

Whilst philosophising in this manner Claude had stopped before another
gate on the left, and, finding it locked, had rung the bell. The passage
to which this gate gave access belonged to a three-storeyed house
separated from the street by a narrow strip of garden. The porter's
lodge was under the arch at the end of the passage, but either the
_concierge_ was absent or the pull at the bell had not been sufficiently
vigorous, for Claude was obliged to tug a second time at the rusty ring
that hung at the end of a long chain. He had time, therefore, to examine
this dull, dismal-looking house, in which there was only one window lit
up. This was on the ground floor, and belonged to the suite of rooms
occupied by the Fresneaus, four windows of which looked out upon the
little garden.

Mademoiselle Emilie Vincy, the poet's sister, had married one Maurice
Fresneau, a teacher, whose colleague Claude had been upon first coming
to Paris--a _début_ of which the pampered author of 'La Goule' was weak
enough to be ashamed. How happy he would have been had he been able to
say that he had frittered away his patrimony at cards or upon women! He,
however, kept up a close acquaintance with his former colleague, out of
gratitude for pecuniary services rendered long ago. He had at first
interested himself in René chiefly for the sake of this old comrade of
less happy days, but had afterwards yielded to the charm of the young
man's nature. How often, when tired of his artificial life and tortured
by painful indolence and bitter passions, had he not come to obtain an
hour's rest in René's modest room, next to that in which the light was
now burning, and which was the dining-room. In the short interval that
elapsed between his two rings, and thanks to the swift imagination of
his artistic mind, this room suddenly rose up before him--symbolical of
the purity of soul hitherto preserved by his friend. The poet and his
sister had with their own hands nailed to the wall some thin red cloth
adorned here and there with a few engravings, chosen with the consummate
taste of a lonely thinker--some studies by Albert Dürer, Gustave
Moreau's 'Hélène' and 'Orphée,' and one or two etchings by Goya. The
iron bedstead, the neatly kept table, the bookcase filled with
well-bound books, the red parquetting of the floor forming a frame to
the carpet in the centre--how Claude had loved this familiar scene, with
these words from the 'Imitatio' written over the door by René in his
boyish days: _Cella continuata dulcescit!_ Larcher's thoughts, at first
ironical, had become suddenly modified by the images his brain had
conjured up, and he felt moved by the idea that this entry into society
through the portals of the Komof mansion was after all a great event for
a child of twenty-five who had always lived in this house. What a heart
full of ideals he was about to carry into that pleasure-loving and
artificial Society that crowded the Comtesse's _salons!_

'What a pity he should have to go!' he exclaimed, his reverie broken by
the click of the lock, adding, as he pushed the gate open, 'But it was I
who advised him to accept the invitation, and who got him dressed for
to-night.' He had, indeed, taken René to his tailor, his hosier, his
bootmaker, and even his hatter, in order to proceed to what he jestingly
called his investiture. 'The dangers of contact with the world ought to
have been thought of before. . . . But how foolish of me to meet
troubles half way! He will be presented to four or five women, he will
be invited to dinner two or three times, he will forget to call again,
he will forget--and he will be forgotten.'

By this time he was half way down the passage, and had knocked at the
first door on the right before coming to the porter's lodge, which it
was not necessary to pass. His knock was answered by a big fat maid of
about thirty, with a short waist, square shoulders, and a great round
face surmounted by a huge Auvergne cap and lit up by two brown eyes
betraying animal simplicity. Instinctive distrust was expressed not only
in the woman's physiognomy, but also by the manner in which she held the
door instead of opening it wide, and by the way she blinked her eyes as
she raised the lamp to throw the light upon the visitor's features. On
recognising Claude her big face expressed a degree of satisfaction that
told plainly how welcome the writer was in the Fresneau household.

'Good evening, Françoise,' said the young man; 'is your master ready?'

'Oh!--it's Monsieur Larcher,' exclaimed the maid, with a joyful smile,
showing all her sharp little white teeth, of which she had lost one on
each side of the top row. 'He is quite ready,' she added, 'and looks
like an angel. You will find _la compagnie_ in the dining-room. Let me
take your coat for you . . . Saints preserve us! My dear gentleman, what
a weight this must be on your back!'

The familiarity of this maid-of-all-work, who had come straight to the
Fresneaus from the professor's native village in Auvergne, and who had
made herself thoroughly at home with them for the past fifteen years,
was a constant source of amusement to Claude Larcher. He was one of
those deep thinkers who worship utter simplicity, no doubt because they
find in it a relief from the incessant and exhaustive labour of their
own brain. Françoise would sometimes speak to him of his works in most
droll and grotesque terms, or with great ingenuousness express the fear
with which she was always haunted--that the author was going to put her
into one of his plays; or, again, she would, after the manner of her
kind, give a most ludicrous turn to some literary phrase she had picked
up in waiting at table. Claude remembered how he had once heard her say,
in praising René's ardour for work: 'He dentifries himself with his
heroes.' He could not help laughing at it even now. She would say
_ceuiller_ for _cuiller_, _engratigner_ for _égratigner_, _archeduc_
for _aqueduc_, to travel in _coquelicot_ for _incognito_, and a heap of
other similar slips which the writer would amuse himself by jotting down
in one of his innumerable notebooks for a novel that he would never
finish. He was therefore as a rule glad to provoke the woman's gossip;
but that evening he was not in a mood for it, being suddenly filled with
melancholy at the idea that he was playing the part of a vulgar worldly
tempter. Whilst Françoise was hanging up his coat for him he looked
down the corridor that he knew so well, with its doors on each side.
René's bedroom was on the right at the end of the passage, facing the
south; the Fresneaus were satisfied with a smaller apartment looking
north, the room next to this being occupied by their son Constant, a boy
six years old, of whom Emilie thought a good deal less than of René.
Claude was fully acquainted with all the reasons for this tender
sisterly love, as he was indeed with the whole history of this family.
It was that history, so touching in its modest simplicity, which amply
justified his remorse in dragging from this peaceful retreat the one in
whom all was centred.

The father of Emilie and René, an attorney of Vouziers, had died a
wretched death from the effects of intemperate habits. The practice
having been sold and what little property there was realised, the widow,
after paying all debts, found herself in possession of about fifty
thousand francs. Feeling that life in Vouziers would recall too many
bitter memories, Madame Vincy went to live in Paris with her two young
children. She had a brother there, the Abbé Taconet, a priest of some
eminence, who, though educated in the Ecole Normale, had suddenly, and
without giving any reasons, entered into holy orders; the astonishment
of his former comrades was, if possible, increased when they saw him,
soon after leaving Saint-Sulpice, set up a school in the Rue Casette. A
conscientious but very liberal Catholic, with strong leanings to
Gallicanism, the Abbé Taconet had seen many families of the upper
middle class hesitate between purely secular and purely religious
colleges, not finding in either that combination of traditional
Christianity and modern development they sought, and he had taken orders
for the express purpose of carrying into effect a plan he had formed for
realising that combination. The height of his ambition was reached on
the day that he and two younger priests opened an ecclesiastical day
school, which he christened the Ecole Saint-André, after his patron
saint. The success that attended the Abbé's enterprise was so rapid
that already, in the third year, two small one-horse omnibuses were
required to fetch the pupils and take them back to their homes.

This opportunity of giving her son, then ten years old, an exceptional
education, was one of the reasons that led Madame Vincy to choose Paris
for her residence, especially since Emilie's sixteen years promised the
mother valuable aid in the discharge of her household duties. By the
advice of the Abbé Taconet, whom the management of the school funds had
made quite a business man, she invested her fifty thousand francs in
Italian stocks, which at that time could be bought at sixty-five francs,
thus securing her an income of two thousand eight hundred francs per
year. The secret of the idolatrous affection which Emilie lavished upon
her young brother lay almost entirely in the innumerable daily
sacrifices entailed by the inadequacy of this amount, for in matters of
love we pursue our sufferings as at cards we pursue our losses.

Almost immediately after her arrival in Paris--she had taken rooms in
this very house in the Rue Coëtlogon, but on the third floor--Madame
Vincy had become an invalid, so that from 1863 to 1871, when the poor
woman died, Emilie had discharged the triple duty of nursing her mother,
of carefully tending a household where fifty centimes meant much, and of
superintending step by step her brother's education. All this, too, she
had done without allowing the fatigue that stole the colour from her
cheeks to wring from her lips a single complaint. She resembled those
sempstresses in the old songs of Paris who consoled themselves in their
rude, incessant toil by cultivating some tender flower upon their window
sill. Her flower was her brother, a timid, loving child with wistful
eyes, and he had well repaid Emilie's devotion by his successes at
college--a source of great joy to women whose lives were so entirely
devoid of all pleasure. It was not long before René began to write
poems, and Emilie had been the happy confidante of the young man's first
attempts. Then, when Fresneau asked her to be his wife, not six months
after the death of her mother, she consented only on condition that the
professor, who had just passed his examinations, would not leave Paris,
and that René was to live with them, and devote himself to writing.
Fresneau joyfully acceded to these demands. He was one of those very
good and very simple men who are peculiarly fitted to be lovers,
granting blindly all that the object of their love desires. He had been
enamoured of Emilie, without daring to declare his passion, since first
making the acquaintance of the Vincys as René's master at the Ecole
Saint-André in 1865. This man, who was not far from forty, felt drawn
towards the girl by the strange similarity of their destinies. Had he
not also renounced all selfish ambition and all personal aspirations in
order to liquidate the debts which his father--a ruined
schoolmaster--had left behind? From 1851 to 1872, when he married, the
professor had paid twenty thousand francs to his father's creditors, and
that by giving lessons at five francs each, taking one with the other!
If we add to the number of working hours that produced this result the
time required for preparing the lessons, correcting exercises, and going
about from one place to another--Fresneau would sometimes have lessons
at all points of the Parisian compass on the same day--we shall have the
sketch of an existence, not uncommon in the profession of teaching, that
is capable of wearing out the strongest constitutions. His love for
Emilie had formed the one romance of Fresneau's life, too occupied as he
had been during his youth to find time for such sentiments. The Abbé
Taconet had given his blessing to their union, and an addition had been
made to the slaves of René's genius.

Claude Larcher was not ignorant of any of these facts, which had all
been of importance in developing the character and talent of the young
poet. Whilst Françoise was hanging up his overcoat his rapid glance
travelled round the dimly-lighted passage and took in all those material
details which for him had a deeper and a moral signification. He knew
why, in the corner near the door, side by side with the professor's
stout alpaca umbrella with its clumsy handle, there stood a neat English
frame with an elegant stick, chosen by Madame Fresneau for her brother.
He knew, too, that it was the sister's love that had provided the dainty
Malacca that adorned the hall-stand, and which had probably cost thirty
times as much as the plain heavy stick carried by Fresneau when it was
fine. He knew that the professor's books, after having for a long time
been exposed to the dirt and dust on the blackened shelves of a bookcase
in this passage, had at length been banished even from that place to a
dark cupboard, and that the passage had then been given up to René's
decorative fancies. The walls were adorned with engravings of his
choosing--a whole row of Raffet's splendid studies of the great
Napoleon, which must have been very obnoxious to the Republican tastes
of the professor. But Claude knew well enough that Fresneau would be the
very last to notice the constant sacrifice of the whole household to
this brother, whom he, too, worshipped, out of love for Emilie, as
blindly as did the servant and even the uncle--the uncle, for the Abbé
Taconet had not been able to resist the influence of the young man's
disposition and talent. The Abbé did not forget that his nephew
possessed a modest income--the amount invested, by his advice, in
Italians, and afterwards transferred to safe French stocks, now bringing
in three thousand francs--and that he himself would double it at his
death. Was not René's Christian education a guarantee that his literary
talents would help to propagate the views of the Church? The priest had
therefore done what he could to start the poet on that difficult path of
letters where the fortunate youth had so far only met with happiness.

Of this happiness, consisting of pure devotion, silent affection, loving
indulgence, and hearty, comforting confidence, Claude Larcher knew the
value better than anyone--he who, bereft of both his parents, had, from
his twentieth year, been compelled to battle alone against the
hardships, the disenchantments, and the contamination of a struggling
author's life in Paris. He never visited the Fresneaus without
experiencing a feeling of sadness, and to-night was no exception to the
rule. It was a feeling which generally made him laugh the louder and
exercise his most withering sarcasm. Too enervated to bear the slightest
emotion without feeling pain, he was, on such occasions, within an ace
of proclaiming his agony, and in view of the hopelessness of ever
conquering this excessive sensibility, ready, like a child, to be judged
by his words whilst uttering the most atrocious libels on his own heart.



CHAPTER II

SIMPLE SOULS


When, with his usual bantering smile, Claude entered the small
dining-room he found that _la compagnie_, as Françoise called it,
comprised René--the hero of what seemed to his friends a most
remarkable adventure--Madame Fresneau and her husband, Madame Offarel,
the wife of a _sous-chef de bureau_ in the Ministère de la Guerre, and
her two daughters, Angélique and Rosalie. All these good people were
seated around the mahogany table on mahogany chairs, the horsehair seats
of which were glossy with the wear of years. This suite formed part of
the original household effects of the _avoué_ of Vouziers, and owed its
marvellous state of preservation to the care bestowed upon it by its
present owners. A portable stove, fixed upon the hearth, did not tend to
improve the air in the somewhat small apartment, though it testified to
the housewife's habits of thrift. Emilie would have no wood fires except
in René's room. A lamp suspended by a brass chain illumined the circle
of heads that was turned towards the visitor as he entered and cast a
feeble light upon the yellow flowers of the wall-paper, relieved here
and there by a piece of old china. The lamp-light revealed more clearly
to the new arrival the feelings expressed in the faces of the different
occupants of the room. Likes and dislikes are not so easily concealed by
those who move in humble circles--there the human animal is less tamed,
less accustomed to the mask continually worn in more polite society.
Emilie held out her hand to Claude--an unusual thing for her to do--with
a happy smile upon her lips, and a look of joy in her brown eyes, her
whole being expressing the sincere pleasure she felt at seeing someone
whom she knew to be interested in her brother.

'Doesn't his coat fit him beautifully?' she asked impetuously, before
Larcher had taken a chair or even exchanged a word of greeting with the
other visitors.

René, it was true, was a perfect specimen of the creature so seldom
seen in Paris--a handsome young man. At twenty-five the author of the
'Sigisbée' was still without a wrinkle on his brow, while the freshness
of his complexion and the look of purity in his clear blue eyes told of
a virgin soul and a mind unsullied by the world. He bore a great
resemblance to the medallion, but little known, which David, the
sculptor, has left of Alfred de Musset in his youth, though René's
wealth of hair, his fair and already full beard, and his broad shoulders
gave him an air of health and strength wanting in the somewhat
effeminate and almost too frail appearance of the great poet. His eyes,
generally serious, spoke at that moment of simple and unalloyed
happiness, and Emilie's admiration was justified by an innate grace that
revealed itself in spite of the levelling effect of a dress-coat. In her
tender solicitude the loving sister had even thought of gold studs and
links for his shirt-front and cuffs, and had bought them out of her
savings at a jeweller's in the Rue de la Paix, after a secret conference
with Claude. She had fastened his white tie with her own fingers, and
had bestowed as much care upon him that evening as when, fourteen years
ago, she had superintended the toilet of this idolised brother for his
first communion.

'Poor Emilie,' said René, with a smile that disclosed two splendid rows
of teeth; 'you must excuse her, Claude; I am her only weakness.'

'Well! So you are dragging René into dissipation too, eh?' cried
Fresneau, as he shook hands with Larcher. The professor was a tall,
broad-shouldered man, with a great head of hair just beginning to turn
grey, and an unkempt beard. Spread out before him, and covered with
pencil notes, were some large sheets of paper--the exercises he brought
home to correct. He gathered them up, saying, 'Lucky man! You've got rid
of this terrible job! Will you take a thimbleful just to warm you?' he
asked, holding up a decanter half filled with brandy, which was always
left on the table after coffee had been served--the family sitting here
in preference to moving into the _salon_, a room in the front of the
house used only on grand occasions. 'Or a cigarette?' he added, offering
Claude a bowl filled with tobacco.

Claude thanked him with a deprecatory smile and turned to bow to the
three lady visitors, not one of whom offered him her hand. The mother,
who scratched her head every now and then with one of her
knitting-needles, was busily at work upon a blue woollen stocking, and
her two daughters were engaged upon some embroidery. Madame Offarel's
hair was quite white, and her face deeply wrinkled; through the round
glasses that she managed to balance somehow or other on her short nose
there flashed a glance of deep hatred upon Claude. Angélique, the elder
of the two girls, repressed a smile as she heard the writer make a
slight slip in his pronunciation; with her black eyes, that shot swift
sideward glances, with her blushes that came as readily as her smiles,
she belonged to the numerous family of shy but mocking females. Rosalie,
the younger of the two sisters, had returned Claude's salute without
raising her eyes, black as her sister's, but filled with a sweet, timid
expression. A few minutes later she stole a glance from beneath her long
lashes at René, and her fingers trembled as her needle followed the
tracing for the embroidery. She bent her head still lower until her
chestnut hair shone in the lamp-light.

Not a whit of this by-play had been lost upon Claude. He was well
acquainted with the habits and disposition of _ces dames Offarel_, as
Fresneau called them in his provincial way. They had probably arrived at
about seven o'clock, soon after dinner. Old Offarel, after having
accompanied them here from the Rue Bagneux, had gone on to the Café
Tabourey, at the corner of the Odéon, where he conscientiously waded
through all the daily papers. Claude had long guessed that Madame
Offarel cherished the idea of a marriage between Rosalie and René; he
suspected his young friend of having encouraged these hopes by an innate
taste for the romantic, and it was only too evident that Rosalie had
been captivated by the mental qualities and physical attractions of the
poet. He, Claude Larcher, knew well enough, too, that he himself was
both liked and feared by the girl. She liked him because he was devoted
to René, and feared him because he was dragging the latter into a fresh
current of events. To this innocent child, as well as to all the members
of this small circle, the _soirée_ at Madame Komof's seemed like a
fairy expedition to distant and unexplored lands. In each of them it
conjured up chimerical hopes or foolish fears. Emilie Fresneau had
always cherished the most ambitious dreams for her brother, and she now
pictured him leaning against a mantelpiece reciting verses in the midst
of a crowd of duchesses, and beloved by a 'Russian princess.' These two
words expressed the highest form of social superiority that her mind was
capable of imagining. Rosalie was the victim of the keenest
perspicacity--that of the woman who loves. Although she reproached
herself for her folly, René's eyes frightened her with the joy they
expressed, and that joy was at going into a world which she, almost his
betrothed, could not enter. A bond, stronger than Claude had imagined,
already united them, for secret vows had been exchanged by the pair one
spring evening in the preceding year. René was then still unknown. She
had him to herself. When by her side he thought all things charming;
without her, all was insipid. To-day, her confidence disturbed by
unconscious jealousy, she began to see what dangerous comparisons
threatened her love. With her home-made dresses that spoilt the beauty
of her figure, with her ready-made boots in which her dainty feet were
lost, with her modest white collars and cuffs, she felt herself grow
small by the side of the grand ladies whom René would meet. That was
why her fingers trembled and why a vague terror shot through her heart,
causing it to beat quicker, whilst the professor pressed Claude to drink
a glass of _liqueur_ and to make himself a cigarette.

'I assure you it's excellent _eau-de-vie_, sent me from Normandy by one
of my pupils. Really not? You used to be so fond of it once. Do you
remember when we gave lessons at Vanaboste's? Four hours a day,
Thursdays included, corrections to be done at home, for a hundred and
fifty francs a month! And yet how happy we were in those days! We had a
quarter of an hour's interval between the classes, and I remember the
little _café_ we used to go to in the Rue Saint-Jacques to get a glass
of this _eau-de-vie_ to keep us going. You used to call it hardening the
arteries, under the pretence that a man is only as old as his arteries,
and that alcohol diminishes their elasticity.'

'I was twelve years younger then,' said Claude, as he laughed at the
other's reminiscences, 'and had no rheumatism.'

'It can't be very good for one's health,' interposed Madame Offarel with
some asperity, 'to go out nearly every night; and these big dinners,
with their fine wines and highly-seasoned dishes, impoverish the blood
terribly!'

'Don't be absurd,' said Emilie, interposing; 'we have had the honour of
Monsieur Larcher's company to dinner, and you would be surprised to see
what a modest meal he makes. And people can afford to go to bed a little
late when they are free to sleep long in the morning. René tells us
that it is so delightfully quiet in your house,' she added, addressing
the writer.

'Yes, so it is. I happened to come across some rooms in an old house in
the Rue de Varenne, and I find that at present I am the only tenant in
the place. When the blinds are drawn I can fancy it is the middle of the
night. I can hear nothing but the ringing of the bells in a convent
close by and the roar of the city far, far away.'

'I have always heard it said that one hour's sleep before midnight is
worth more than two afterwards,' broke in the old lady, exasperated by
Claude's imperturbability. She was incensed against him without knowing
exactly why--this feeling being inspired less by the influence he
exercised upon René than by deep natural antipathy. She felt that she
was being studied by this individual with the inquisitorial eyes,
perfect manners, and unfathomable smiles. His presence produced in her a
feeling of uneasiness that found vent in sharp words. She therefore
added, 'Besides, Monsieur René cannot have such rest here. At what time
will this Countess's _soirée_ be over?'

'I don't know,' replied Claude, amused by the ill-concealed rancour of
his adversary; 'the "Sigisbée" will be performed about half-past ten,
and I suppose we shall sit down to supper about half-past twelve or
one.'

'Monsieur René will be in bed about two o'clock, then,' rejoined Madame
Offarel, with the visible satisfaction of an aggressive person bringing
forward an irrefutable argument; 'and as Monsieur Fresneau goes out
about seven, and Françoise begins to potter about at six----'

'Come, come, once in a way!' exclaimed Emilie with some impatience,
cutting short the other's words. She feared the old lady's indiscreet
tongue, and changed the topic by flattering her pet mania. 'You have not
told us whether Cendrillon came back for good?'

Cendrillon was a grey cat presented by Madame Offarel to a young man
named Jacques Passart, a teacher of drawing, between whom and the
_sous-chef de bureau_ a friendship had sprung up, born of their mutual
taste for _aquarelles._ These were the two family vices--a love for
painting in the husband, who daubed his canvases even in his office; and
a love of cats in the wife, who had had as many as five such boarders in
her flat--a ground floor like that of the Fresneaus, also with its bit
of garden. Jacques Passart, who nursed an unrequited affection for
Rosalie, had so often gone into rhapsodies over the pretty ways of
Cendrette or Cendrinette, as Madame Offarel called her, that he had been
presented with the animal. After a stay of three months in the room
occupied by Passart on a fifth floor in the Rue du Cherche-Midi,
Cendrillon had become a mother. Out of her three kittens two had been
killed, and, doubtlessly thinking the third in danger, she had run away
with it. Passart had been afraid to speak of his loss, but two days
later Madame Offarel heard a scratching at the garden door.

'That's strange,' she said, verifying the number of her cats--one of
which was lying at full length on the counterpane of her bed, another on
the only sofa, and a third on the marble chimney-piece. 'They are all
here, and yet I hear a scratching.' She opened the door, and Cendrillon
walked in, purring, arching her back, and rubbing her head against her
old mistress with a thousand pretty little ways that charmed the good
lady. The next morning Cendrillon had once more vanished. This visit,
rendered more mysterious by the avowal Passart had been obliged to make
of his negligence, had on the previous day been the sole theme of Madame
Offarel's conversation, and the fact that she had not even alluded to
the circumstance that evening revealed more than her epigrams the
importance attached by Rosalie's mother to René's entry into society.

'Ah! Cendrillon,' she replied, her ill-humour tinged with the enthusiasm
evoked by the mention of the dear creature. 'I don't suppose Monsieur
René remembers anything about it?' Upon a sign of reassurance from the
young man that he had not forgotten the interesting event, she
continued: 'Well, she came back this morning, carrying her little one in
her mouth, and laid it at my feet like an offering, with such a look in
her eyes! The day before she had come to see whether I still cared for
her, and now she came to ask me to take her kitten too. It's better to
bestow one's affections upon animals than upon human beings,' she added,
by way of conclusion; 'they are much more faithful.'

'What a wonderful trait of instinct!' cried Fresneau, beginning once
more to disfigure his exercises with cabalistic signs. 'I will make a
note of it for my class.' The poor man, a real Jack-of-all-trades in his
profession, taught philosophy in a preparatory school for B.A.'s, Latin
in another, history in another, and even English, which he could
scarcely pronounce. In this way he had contracted the habit, peculiar to
old schoolmen, of holding forth at length at every possible opportunity.
This marvellous return of Cendrillon to her native hearth was a text to
be elaborated _ad infinitum._ He went on telling anecdote after
anecdote, and forgetting his exercises--to all appearances. The
excellent man, so weak that he had never been able to keep a class of
ten boys in order, was a marvel of observation where his wife was
concerned. Whilst his pencil was running over the margins of the sheets
of foolscap he had distinctly perceived Madame Offarel's hostility. From
Emilie's tone of voice, too, it was clear to him that she was somewhat
uneasy as to the turn that such a conversation might take. So the
professor prolonged his monologue in order to give the nerves of the
sour-tempered _bourgeoise_ time to steady themselves. He was not called
upon to play his part long, for there came another ring at the bell.

'That's papa!' exclaimed Rosalie; 'it must be a quarter to ten.' She,
too, had suffered from her mother's show of temper towards Claude and
René, and the arrival of her father, which was the signal for
departure, seemed like a deliverance--to her, too, for whom parting from
the Fresneaus was generally an ordeal. But she knew her mother, and
felt, by instinct rather than by reasoning, how mean and distasteful the
bitterness of her remarks must seem to René. There were only too many
reasons why he should no longer care for their company. She therefore
rose as her father entered the room. M. Offarel was a tall,
withered-looking man, with one of those pinched faces that irresistibly
remind one of the immortal type of Don Quixote; an aquiline nose, hollow
temples, a harshly drawn mouth, and, to crown all, one of those receding
brows the wrinkles and bumps of which represent so many chimerical
fancies and false ideas within. To his innocent mania for _aquarelles_
he added the ridiculous weakness of incessantly talking about his
imaginary complaints.

'It's very cold to-night,' were his first words, and, addressing his
wife, he added, 'Adelaide, have you any tincture of iodine in the house?
I am sure I shall have my attack of rheumatism in the morning.'

'Is your cab warmed?' asked Emilie, turning to Claude.

'Oh, yes,' replied the writer, pulling out his watch; 'and I see that
it's time to get into it, if we don't want to be late.' Whilst he was
taking leave of the little circle René disappeared through the door
that led from the dining-room to his bedroom without bidding anyone good
night.

'He has probably only gone to get his coat,' thought Rosalie; 'he cannot
possibly have gone without saying good-bye, especially as he has not
looked at me at all to-night.' She went on with her work whilst Fresneau
received the _sous-chef de bureau_ with the same questions he had put to
his friend: 'Just a thimbleful to keep the cold out?'

'Only a suspicion,' answered Offarel.

'That's right,' rejoined the professor, 'you are not like Larcher, who
despised my _eau-de-vie!_'

'Monsieur Larcher!' observed the other. 'Don't you know his usual drink?
Why'--he added, in a lower key, and prudently looking towards the
passage--'I read an article in the paper only this evening that shows
him up well.'

'Tell us all about it, _petit père_,' exclaimed Madame Offarel,
dropping her work for the first time that evening, and artlessly
allowing her rancorous feelings to betray themselves as openly as her
simple affection for her cat.

'It appears,' said the old man, emphasising his words, 'that wherever
Monsieur Larcher appears, they offer him blood to drink instead of tea
or other things.'

'Blood!' exclaimed Fresneau, taken aback by this astounding statement.
'What for?'

'To sustain him, of course,' said Madame Offarel quickly; 'didn't you
notice his face? What a life he must lead!'

'It also appears,' continued Offarel, anxious to gratify that low taste
for senseless gossip peculiar to a _bourgeois_ as soon as he gets hold
of one of the innumerable calumnies to which well-known men are
exposed--'it appears that he lives surrounded by a court of women who
adore him, and that he has discovered an infallible method of making
whatever he writes a success. He has a dozen copies of his proofs struck
off at once, and takes one to each of the ladies he knows. They spread
them out on their knees, and "_Mon petit_ Larcher here, and _mon petit_
Larcher there--you must alter this and you must cut out that." So he
alters this and he cuts out that, and the ladies imagine that they have
written his work for him.'

'I am not at all surprised,' said Madame Offarel; 'he looks like a bold
deceiver.'

'I must confess,' replied Fresneau, 'that I don't like his writings
much; but as for being a deceiver--that's another matter. My dear Madame
Offarel, I assure you he's a perfect child. How it amuses me when the
newspapers say that he knows women's hearts! I've always found him in
love with the worst creatures on earth, whom he conscientiously believed
to be angels, and who deceive him and fool him as much as they please.
René told us the other day that he spends his time in dallying with
little Colette Rigaud, who plays in the "Sigisbée"--a false hussy
who'll worm his last shilling out of him.'

'Hush!' exclaimed Emilie, entering just in time to hear the end of this
little speech, and placing her hand on her husband's lips. 'Monsieur
Claude is a friend of ours, and I won't have him discussed. My brother
desires to be excused for not saying "good night" to you all,' she
added; 'they hadn't noticed that it was so late, and left in a hurry.
And when am I to have that drawing of the last scene in the
"Sigisbée?"' she asked, turning to the _sous-chef de bureau._

'It's a bad time of year for water-colours,' replied the latter; 'it
gets dark so soon, and we are overwhelmed with work--but you shall have
it. Why, what's the matter, Rosalie? You are quite white.'

The poor girl was indeed suffering tortures on finding that René had
left her without so much as a look or a word. A great lump rose in her
throat, and her eyes filled with tears. She had strength enough,
however, to repress her sobs and to reply that she was overcome by the
heat of the stove. Her mother darted a look at Emilie containing such a
direct reproach that Madame Fresneau turned away her eyes involuntarily.
She, too, was deeply grieved; for, although she had always been opposed
to this marriage, which was quite out of keeping with the ambitious
plans she vaguely cherished for her brother, she loved Rosalie. When the
mother and her two daughters had put on their bonnets and were at last
ready to go, Emilie's feelings led her to embrace Rosalie more
affectionately than was her wont. She was quite ready to pity the girl's
sufferings, but that pity was not entirely devoid of a sad kind of
satisfaction at seeing René's manifest indifference, and as the door
closed behind her visitors she turned to Françoise with unalloyed joy
in her honest brown eyes.

'You will take care not to make any noise in the morning, won't you?'

'No more than a mouse,' replied the girl.

'And you too, my big beauty,' she said to her husband, on entering the
dining-room, where the professor was once more at his exercises. 'I have
told Constant to get up and dress quietly,' adding, with a proud smile,
'what a triumph for René to-night, provided that these grand folks
don't turn up their noses at his verse! But I'm sure they'll not do
that; his poetry is too good--almost as good as he is himself!'

'It is to be hoped that all these fine ladies will not spoil him as you
do,' exclaimed Fresneau, 'for it would end by his losing his head. No,
no,' he went on, in order to flatter his wife's feelings, 'it is a
pleasure to see how modest he is, even in success.'

And Emilie kissed her husband tenderly for those words.



CHAPTER III

A LOVER AND A SNOB


The two young men got into the cab and were soon being rapidly driven
along the Rue du Cherche-Midi in order to reach the Boulevard du
Montparnasse, and so follow, by way of the Invalides, the long line of
avenues that crosses the Seine by the Pont de l'Alma and leads almost
direct to the Arc de Triomphe. At first both remained perfectly silent,
René amusing himself by watching for the well-known landmarks of a
neighbourhood in which all the reminiscences of his childhood and youth
were centred. The pane of glass through which he gazed was clouded with
a thin vapour, a fitting symbol of the cloud that separated the world he
had just left from that which lay before him. There was not an angle in
the Rue du Cherche-Midi that was not as familiar to him as the walls of
his own room--from the tall dark building of the military prison to the
corner of the quiet Rue de Bagneux, where Rosalie dwelt. The remembrance
of the charming girl whom he had so unceremoniously quitted that evening
passed through his mind, but caused him no pain. The sensation he felt
was like dreaming with open eyes, so little did the individual who had
trodden these streets in his dreary and obscure youth resemble the rich
and celebrated writer now seated next to Claude Larcher. Celebrated--for
all Paris had flocked to see his piece; rich--for 'Le Sigisbée,' first
performed in September, had already brought him in twenty-five thousand
francs by February. Nor was this source of revenue likely to be soon
exhausted. 'Le Sigisbée' had been put into the same bill with 'Le
Jumeau,' a three-act comedy by a well-known author that would have a
long run. The play, too, was selling well in book form, and the rights
of translation and of representation in the provinces were being turned
to good account. But all this was only a beginning, for René had
several other works in reserve--a volume of philosophical poems entitled
'On the Heights,' a drama in verse dealing with the Renaissance, to be
called 'Savonarola,' and a half-finished story of deep passion for which
the writer had as yet found no title.

As the cab rolled along, the intoxication produced by thoughts of past
success, as well as by ambitious plans for the future, was intensified
by the excitement of his entering into Society. The feelings of this
grown-up child were similar to those of a girl going to her first ball.
He was a prey to a fit of nerves that almost made him feel beside
himself. This power of amplifying even to fanciful dimensions
impressions of utter mediocrity in themselves is both the misfortune and
happiness of poets. To that power is due those transitions, almost
startling in their suddenness, from the heights of optimism to the
depths of pessimism, from exultation to despair; these lend to the
imagination, and consequently to the disposition and feelings, a
continual pendulum-like motion--an instability of terrible portent to
the women who become attached to these vacillating souls. Amongst such
souls, however, there are some in whom this dangerous quality does not
exclude true affection. This was the case with René. The involuntary
comparison between the present and the past so suddenly provoked by the
familiar aspect of the streets brought his thoughts round to the more
experienced friend who had witnessed his rapid change of fortune. In
obedience to one of those simple impulses which form such a charming
trait in the young--affording as they do a beautiful but rare example of
the invincible bond between the inner and the outer man--he grasped the
hand of his silent companion, saying: 'How kind you have been to
me!'. . . And seeing Claude's eyes turned upon him in some astonishment,
he continued: 'If you had not been so encouraging when I made my first
attempts I should never have brought you "Le Sigisbée," and if you had
not recommended it to Mademoiselle Rigaud it would now be mouldering on
some manager's shelf. If you had not spoken to the Comtesse Komof my
piece would not be performed at her house, and I should not be going
there this evening. I am happy, very happy, and I owe it all to you! Ah!
_mon ami_, you may think me as silly as a schoolboy, but you cannot
imagine how often I have dreamt of that world into which you are now
taking me, where the mere dresses of the women are poems, and where joy
and grief are set in exquisite frames!'

'Would that these women had souls of the same stuff as their dresses!'
exclaimed Claude with a smile. 'But you surprise me,' he went on; 'do
you think that you will be in Society because you are received by Madame
Komof, a foreign countess who keeps open house, or by any of the
lion-hunters whom you will meet there, and who will tell you that they
are at home every afternoon? You will go out a good deal, if you like
that kind of thing, but you will be no more in Society than I or any
other artist or even genius, simply because you were not born in it, and
because your family is not in it. You will be received and made much of.
But try to marry into one of these families and you will see what they
will tell you. And a good thing for you, too. Good heavens! if you only
knew these women whom you picture to yourself as being so refined, so
elegant, so aristocratic! Mere bundles of vanity, dressed by Worth or
Laferrière . . . Why, there are not ten in the whole of Paris capable
of true feeling. The most honest are those who take a lover because they
like him. Were you to dissect them, you would find in place of a heart a
dressmaker's bill, half-a-dozen prejudices which serve as principles,
and a mad desire to eclipse some other woman. What fools we are to be
here in this vehicle--two fairly sensible men with work to do at
home--you all of a tremble at the idea of mixing with so-called _grandes
dames_, and I . . .!'

'What has Colette been doing to-day?' asked René quietly, a little put
out by the asperity of his friend's words, though not laying much weight
upon arguments applied with such evident rancour. These furious
outbursts were nearly always caused, as he knew, by some coquetry on the
part of the actress with whom Claude was madly in love, and who
delighted in fooling him, though loving him in her way. It was one of
those attachments, based on hatred and sensuality, which both torture
and degrade the heart, and which transform their victim into a wild
beast, one of the features peculiar to this sort of passion being the
frequency with which it is liable to suffer crises as sharp and violent
as the physical ideas on which it feeds.

The image of his mistress had probably flashed across Claude's brain,
and the happy frame of mind called forth by his last visit had
immediately yielded to sudden rage--rage which he would have satisfied
at that moment by no matter what outrageous paradox. He fell headlong
into the trap laid for him by his friend, and, grasping the arm of the
latter tightly, he said with a sickly laugh: 'What has she been doing
to-day? . . . Are you anxious to know the depth of this keen analyst of
women's hearts, this subtle psychologist as the papers call me, this
unmitigated ass as I call myself? Alas! my wits have never served for
aught else than to convince me of my folly! . . . Have I told you,' he
added, dropping his voice, 'that I have grown to be jealous of
Salvaney? . . . I forgot, you don't know Salvaney--an up-to-date gallant
who goes about his love affairs cheque-book in hand! . . . With a nose like
a beetroot, a bald pate, eyes starting from their sockets, and a colour
like a drover! . . . But there you are--he is an _anglomane, anglomane_
to such an extent that the Prince of Wales is a Frenchman by the side of
him. . . . Last year he spent three months in Florence, and I myself
heard him boast that in those three months he had never worn a shirt
that had not been washed in London. You must take my word for it that in
Society, which has such a fascination for you, one fact like that gives
a man more prestige than if he had written the "Nabab" or "L'Assommoir."
Well! this individual pleases Colette. He is to be found in her
dressing-room as often as I am, and gazes at her with his
whisky-drinker's eyes. It was he who introduced the custom of going to a
bar filled with jockeys and bookmakers, in order to sip most abominable
spirits after the Opera; I will take you there some evening, and you
will see the beauty for yourself. . . . Colette lets him take her even
there, and goes about everywhere with him in a brougham. . . . "Get
out!" she says, "you are not going to be jealous of a man like that, are
you? He smells of gin, to begin with." . . . Such women will tell you
these things without any ado, and pull to pieces in the most shameless
manner their lovers of yesterday. . . . To cut a long story short, I was
at her house this morning. Yes, yes--I knew all about these things, but
I didn't believe them. A fellow like Salvaney! If you were to see him
you would understand how incredible it seems, and as for her--well, you
know her with that soft look in her eyes, with her mouth _à la
Botticelli_ and her exquisite grace. What a pity it seems! Well, I was
with her when the servant, a fresh importation, who didn't know her
business, brought a letter in, saying, "It's from Monsieur Salvaney--his
man is waiting for an answer." In one of her fits of affection Colette
had just sworn to me that nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the
shadow of a shade of a flirtation had ever passed between them. As she
held the letter in her hand I was foolish enough to think, "She is going
to show me the letter, and I shall have written proofs that she has not
told me a lie--and proof positive, for Salvaney could not have known
that I should see this letter." She held the letter in her hand, and,
looking at me, said to the girl, "Very well, I'll answer it at once. You
will excuse me, won't you?" she added, passing into the other room--with
her letter! I suppose you think I took my hat and stick and left the
house for good with an oath on my lips? No, I stayed, _mon cher ami_.
She came back, rang the bell, gave the servant a note, and then, coming
towards me, said, "Are you angry?" Silence on my part. "Did you want to
read that letter?" I was still silent. "No, you sha'n't read it," she
continued, with a pretty little frown; "I have burnt it. He only asked
for the pattern of some stuff for a fancy dress; but I want you to
believe me on my bare word." All this was said as coolly as possible; I
have never seen her act better. Don't ask me what I said in reply. I
treated her as the vilest thing on earth. I flung into her teeth all the
disgust, hatred, and contempt I felt for her; and then, as she sat there
sobbing, I took her in my arms, and on the very spot where she had lied
to me, and I had treated her like the common thing she was, we kissed
and made it up. Do you think I have fallen low enough?'

'But were your suspicions correct?' asked René.

'Were they correct?' re-echoed Claude, with that accent of cruel triumph
affected by jealous lovers when their mad desire to know all has ended
in proving their worst suspicions up to the hilt. 'Do you know what
Salvaney's note contained? An appointment--and Colette's reply confirmed
the appointment. I know this, for I had her followed. Yes, I stooped
even to that. He met her coming from rehearsal, and they were together
until eight o'clock.'

'And haven't you broken with her?' asked Vincy.

'It's all over,' replied Claude, 'and for good, I promise you. But I
must tell her what I think of her, just for the last time. The wretch!
You'll see how I'll treat her to-night.'

In telling his sad tale Claude had betrayed such intense grief that
René's former feelings of joy were quite disturbed. Pity for the man to
whom he was deeply attached by bonds of gratitude was mingled with
disgust for Colette's shameless duplicity. For a moment he felt, too,
some deep-lying remorse as he conjured up by way of contrast the pure
soul that shone in Rosalie's honest eyes. But it was only a passing
fancy, quickly dispelled by the sudden change in his companion. This
demon of a man, who was one bundle of nerves, possessed the gift of
changing his ideas and feelings with a rapidity that was perfectly
inexplicable. He had just been speaking in despairing accents and in a
voice broken with emotion, which his friend knew to be sincere. Snapping
his fingers as if to get rid of his trouble, he muttered, 'Come, come,'
and immediately brought the conversation round to literary topics, so
that the two writers were discussing the last novel when the sudden
stoppage of the vehicle as it fell in behind a long line of others told
them that they had arrived.

René's heart began to beat afresh with short, convulsive throbs. The
cab stopped before a doorway protected by an awning, and again the
dreamlike feeling came over the young man on finding himself in the
ante-room which he had already once passed through. There were several
liveried footmen in the room, which was filled with flowers and heated
by invisible pipes. The coats and cloaks arranged on long tables and the
hum of conversation that came from the _salons_ made it evident that
most of the guests had arrived. In the ante-room there was only one
lady, whom an attendant was just helping off with her fur-lined cloak,
from which she emerged in an elegantly fitting low-necked dress of red
material. She had a very distinguished face, a nose slightly tipped, and
lips that denoted spirituality. A few diamonds sparkled amidst the
tresses of her fair silken hair. René saw Claude bow to her, and he
felt himself grow pale as her eyes rested indifferently upon him--eyes
of light blue set off by that complexion, found in blondes, which, in
spite of the hackneyed metaphor, can only be described as that of a
blush rose, possessing as it does all the freshness and delicacy of the
latter.

'That's Madame Moraines,' said Claude, 'the daughter of Victor
Bois-Dauffin, a Minister during the Empire.'

These words, spoken as if in reply to a mute question, were to come back
to René more than once. More than once was he to ask himself what
strange fate had brought him face to face, almost on the threshold of
this house, with the one woman who, of all those assembled in these
_salons_, was to exercise most influence upon him. But at the moment
itself he felt none of those presentiments which sometimes seize us on
meeting a creature who is to bring us either good or evil. The vision of
this beautiful woman of thirty, who had already disappeared whilst
Claude and he were waiting for the numbers of their coats, became lost
in the confused impression created by the novelty of everything around
him. Though it was impossible for him to analyse his feelings, the
richness of the carpets, the splendidly decorated vestibule, the lofty
halls, the livery of the footmen, the reflection of the lights, all went
a long way towards making this impression a strange medley of painful
timidity and delightful sensuality.

On the occasion of his first visit he had already felt himself enveloped
by those thousand indescribable atoms that float in the atmosphere of
luxury. Persons born in opulence no more perceive these infinitely small
but subtle trifles than we perceive the weight of the air that surrounds
us. We cannot feel what we have always felt. Nor do _parvenus_ ever tell
us their impressions. Their instinct teaches them to swallow such
feelings and to keep them hidden in their hearts. Apart from all this,
René had no time to reflect upon the snobbishness of the feeling that
filled him. The doors were swung back, and he entered the first _salon_,
furnished in that sumptuous but stereotyped style peculiar to all the
big modern houses in Paris. Whoever has seen one has seen them all. A
novice like René, however, would discover signs of the purest
aristocracy in the smallest details of this furniture, in the antique
materials with which the arm-chairs were upholstered, and in the
tapestry that hung over the chimney-piece and represented a Triumph of
Bacchus. The first _salon_, of middling dimensions, communicated by
folding doors with another much larger, in which all the guests were
evidently assembled, judging by the hum of conversation. René's
perceptive faculties being in that state of intense excitement
frequently caused by extreme shyness, he was able to take in the whole
scene at a glance; he saw Madame Moraines in her red dress disappear
through the open folding doors, and the Comtesse Komof talking, with
violent and extravagant gesticulation, to a group of people before the
chimney-piece of the smaller _salon._ The Comtesse was a tall woman of
almost tragic appearance; she had shoulders too narrow for the rest of
her body, white hair, rather harsh features, and grey eyes of piercing
brilliancy. The sombre hue of her dress enhanced the magnificence of the
jewels with which she was covered, and her hands, as she waved them
about, displayed a wealth of enormous sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds.
Acknowledging with a smile the bow that Claude and René made her, she
continued her account of a _séance_ of spiritualism--a favourite hobby
of hers.

'The table went up, up, up,' she said, 'until our hands could scarcely
follow it. The candles were blown out by invisible lips, and in the
darkness I saw a hand pass up and down--an immense hand--it was that of
Peter the Great!'

The muscles of her face grew rigid as she spoke, and her eyes became
fixed as if on a terrible apparition. Traces of that brutish and almost
half-witted creature of instinct that lurks even in the most refined
Russian appeared for a few seconds upon the surface. Then the Society
woman suddenly remembered that she had to perform the honours of her
house, and the smile came back to her lips and the gleam in her eyes
grew softer. Was it that intuition peculiar to elderly women which gives
them such a soothing influence over men of irritable nerves that
revealed to her how solitary René felt in the midst of these crowded
_salons_, where he knew not a soul? As soon as her story was ended she
was good enough to turn to him with a smile and say: 'Do you believe in
spirits, Monsieur Vincy? Of course you do--you are a poet. But we'll
talk of that some other day. You must come with me now, in spite of the
fact that I'm neither young nor pretty, and be presented to some of my
friends, who are already passionate admirers of yours.'

She had taken the young man's arm, and, although he was above the middle
height, she was taller than he by half a head. Her tragic expression was
not deceptive. She had really lived through what the strange look in her
eyes and the determined set of her features led one to imagine. Her
husband had been murdered almost at her feet, and she herself had killed
the assassin. René had heard the story from Claude, and he could see
the scene before him--the Comte Komof, a distinguished diplomat, stabbed
to the heart by a Nihilist in his study; the Comtesse entering at the
moment and bringing down the murderer by a well-directed shot. While the
young man reflected that those tapering fingers, resplendent with rings
as they lay on his coat sleeve, had clutched the pistol, his partner had
already commenced some fresh story with that savage energy of expression
that in people of Slavonic race is not incompatible with the most
refined and elegant manners.

'It was on my arrival in Paris about eight years ago, just after the
war. I had not been here since the first Exhibition, in 1855. Ah! my
dear sir, the Paris of those days was really charming . . . and your
Emperor . . . _idéal!_ She had a way of dwelling on her last syllables
when she wished to express her enthusiasm. 'My daughter, the Princess
Roudine, was with me--I don't think you know her; she lives in Florence
all the year round. She was taken ill, but Doctor Louvet--you know, the
little man who looks like a miniature edition of Henri III.--got her
over it. I always call him Louvetsky, because he only attends Russians.
I could not think of taking her away from Paris, so this house being for
sale, ready furnished, I bought it. But I've turned everything upside
down. Look here, this used to be the garden,' she added, showing René
the larger _salon_, which they had just entered.

This _salon_ was a vast apartment, whose walls were hung with canvases
of all sizes and schools, picked up by the Comtesse in the course of her
European rambles. Though René had been strongly impressed from the
first by the general air of material well-being everywhere apparent,
this feeling was intensified by the spiritual luxury, if one may use
such a term, which such cosmopolitanism represents. The way in which the
Comtesse had mentioned Florence, as if it were a suburb of Paris, the
resources indicated by the improvements effected in the mansion, the
fluency with which this grand Russian lady spoke French--how could a
young man accustomed to the limited horizon of a struggling family of
modest _bourgeois_ fail to be struck with childlike wonder at the sight
of a world such as these details suggested? His eyes opened wide to take
in the whole of the charming scene before him. At the end of the _salon_
heavy, dark red curtains hung across the usual entrance to the
dining-room, which apartment, approached by three broad stairs, had been
turned for the nonce into a stage. In the centre of the hall stood a
marble column surmounted by a bust in bronze of the famous Nicolas
Komof, the friend of Peter the Great--this ancestral kind of monument
being surrounded by a group of gigantic palms in huge pots of Indian
brass ware, whilst lines of chairs were drawn up between the column and
the stage.

By this time nearly all the ladies were seated, and the lights shone
down upon a living sea of snowy arms and shoulders, some too robust,
others too lean, others again most exquisitely moulded; jewels sparkled
in tresses fair and dark, the flutter of fans tempered the glances that
shot from eloquent eyes, whilst words and laughter became blended in one
loud, harmonious murmur. In the ladies' dresses, too, lay a wonderful
play of colour, and one side of the _salon_ presented a striking
contrast to the other, where the men, in their swallow-tails, formed a
solid mass of black. A few women, however, had found their way amongst
the sterner sex, while here and there a dark patch amidst the seated
fair ones betrayed the presence of a male interloper. The whole of the
company, although somewhat mixed, was composed of people accustomed to
meet daily, and for years, in places that serve as common ground for
different sets of Society. There were blue-blooded duchesses from the
Faubourg Saint-Germain, whose sporting tastes and charity errands took
them to all kinds of places. There were also the wives of big financiers
and politicians, representing every degree of cosmopolitan elegance, and
there were even the wives of plain artists, following up their husbands'
successes through a string of fashionable dinners and receptions.

But to a new-comer like René Vincy the social distinctions that broke
up the _salon_ into a series of very dissimilar groups were utterly
imperceptible. The spectacle upon which he gazed surpassed, in outward
magnificence, his wildest dreams. Amidst a hum of voices he allowed
himself to be presented to some of the men as they passed, and to a few
of the women seated on the back row of chairs, bowing and stammering out
a few words in reply to the compliments with which the more amiable ones
favoured him. Madame Komof, perceiving his timidity, was kind enough not
to leave him, especially since Claude, a prey to some fresh fit of his
amorous passion, had disappeared. He had probably gone behind the
scenes, and when the signal for raising the curtain was given the poet
found himself seated beside the Comtesse in the shadow of the palms that
surrounded the ancestral bust, happy that he was in a place where he
could escape notice.



CHAPTER IV

THE 'SIGISBÉE'


Two footmen in livery drew back the curtains from before the miniature
stage. The scene being laid 'In a garden, in Venice,' nothing had been
required in the way of scenery beyond a piece of cloth stretched across
the back of the stage and a bank formed of plants selected from the
hostess's famous conservatory. With the somewhat crude appearance of
their foliage under the glare of the light these exotic shrubs made a
setting very different to that which M. Perrin had arranged with so much
taste at the Comédie Française. That model of a manager, if ever there
was one, had hit upon the happy idea of placing before his audience one
of the terraces on the lagoon that lead by a flight of marble steps down
to the lapping waters, with the variegated façades of the palaces
standing out against the blue sky and the black gondolas flitting round
the corners of the tortuous canals. The change from the usual scenery,
the diminutive stage, the limited and eminently select audience, all
contributed to increase René's feeling of uneasiness, and he again felt
his heart beating as wildly as on the night of the first performance at
the theatre.

The appearance of Colette Rigaud, dressed _à la Watteau_, was the
signal for a burst of applause, which the actress smilingly
acknowledged. Even in her gay attire, copied from one of the great
painter's _fêtes galantes_, and in spite of her powdered hair, her
patch, and her pale cheeks bedaubed with paint, there was a tone of
sadness about her--something in the dreamy look of the eyes and the
melancholy expression on the sensual lips that reminded one of
Botticelli's madonnas and angels. How many times had not René heard
Claude sigh: 'When she has been telling me lies, and then looks at me in
her own peculiar way, I begin to pity her instead of getting angry.'

Colette had already attacked the first lines of her part and René's
anguish was at its highest pitch, while all around he heard the loud
remarks which even well-bred people will make when an artiste appears on
a drawing-room stage. 'She's very pretty. Do you think it's the same
dress she wears at the theatre? She's a little too thin for my taste.
What a sympathetic voice! No, she imitates Sarah Bernhardt too much. I'm
in love with the piece, aren't you? To tell you the truth, poetry always
sends me to sleep.' The poet's sharp ears caught all these exclamations
and many more. They were, however, soon silenced by a loud 'hush!' that
came from a knot of young men standing near René, conspicuous among
them being a bald-headed individual with rather a prominent nose and a
very red face.

The Comtesse thanked him with a wave of her hand, and, turning to her
partner, said: 'That's M. Salvaney; he is madly in love with Colette.'
Silence was reestablished, a silence broken only by the rustle of
dresses and the unfurling of fans.

René now listened in delightful intoxication to the music of his own
verses, for by the silence as well as by the murmurs of approval that
were occasionally heard he felt, he knew, that his work was as surely
captivating this select audience as it had captivated the 'house' on its
first night at the Théâtre Français, then filled with tired critics,
worn-out reporters, scoffing _boulevardiers_, and smart women. Gradually
his thoughts took him back, in spite of himself, to the period when he
had first thought out and then written the little play which was that
night procuring him such a new and delightful thrill of gratification,
after having so completely changed the tenor of his life. He saw himself
once more in the Luxembourg garden at the close of a bright spring day;
the charm of the deepening twilight, the smell of the flowers, the dark
blue sky seen through the spare foliage, and the marble statues of the
queens--all these things had deeply impressed him as he walked with
Rosalie, silent, by his side. She had such a simple way of looking up at
him with her great black eyes, in which he could read unconscious though
tender passion.

It was on that evening that he had first spoken to her of love, there,
amidst the scent of the early lilac, whilst the voices of Madame Offarel
and Emilie could be heard, indistinctly, in the distance. He had
returned to the Rue Coëtlogon a prey to that fever of hope which brings
tears to one's eyes and moves one's nature to its inmost depths. Finding
it impossible to sleep, he had sat there alone in his room and drawn a
comparison between Rosalie and the object of an earlier but less
innocent attachment--a girl named Elise, living in the Quartier Latin.
He had met her in a _brasserie_, where he had been taken by the only two
comrades he possessed. Faded as she was, Elise could still boast of good
looks, in spite of the black under her eyes, the powder all over her
face, and the carmine on her lips. She had taken a fancy to him, and
although she shocked him dreadfully by her gestures and her mode of
thought, by her voice and her expressions, he had continued the
acquaintanceship for about six months--six months that had left him
nothing but a bitter memory. Being one of those in whom passion leads to
affection, he had become attached to the girl in spite of himself, and
he had suffered cruelly from her coquetry, the coarseness of her
feelings, and the stock of moral infamy that formed the groundwork of
the poor creature's nature.

Seated at his writing-table that night, and dreaming ecstatically of
Rosalie's purity, he had conceived the idea of a poem in which he should
draw a contrast between a coquette and a true, tender-hearted girl.
Then, being an ardent admirer of Shakespeare and de Musset, his vulgar
love affair with Elise underwent a strange metamorphosis and became an
Italian romance. There and then he made a rough sketch of the
'Sigisbée,' and composed fifty lines. It was the simple story of a
young Venetian noble, named Lorenzo, who had fallen in love with
Princess Cœlia, a cold and cruel coquette. The unhappy swain, after
wasting much time and many tears in wooing this unrelenting beauty, was
advised by a young Marquis de Sénecé, a French _roué_ on a visit to
Venice, to affect an interest in the sweet and pretty Countess Beatrice
in order to awaken Cœlia's jealousy. He then discovered that the
Countess had long loved him, and when Cœlia, caught in the trap, tried
to lead him back, Lorenzo, profiting by experience, said the perfidious
lady nay, and gave himself up entirely to the charms of her who loved
him without guile.

Colette, as Cœlia, was speaking while Lorenzo sat lamenting. The
_roué_ was cynical and Beatrice lost in dreams. These characters,
coming straight from the world of Benedict and Perdican, of Rosalind and
Fortunio, strutted on and off, enveloped in a ray of poetry as sweet and
light as a moonbeam. As René heard the frequent exclamations of
'Charming!' or 'Exquisite!' that escaped from the crowd of women before
him he recalled the nights of wakefulness that this or that passage had
cost him. There were these pathetic lines, for instance, written by
Lorenzo to Cœlia, and afterwards shown by the latter to Beatrice. How
sweet Colette's voice became, in spite of its mocking note, as she read
them out.


If kisses for kisses the roses could pay
When our lips o'er their petals in ecstasy stray;
If the lilacs and tall slender lilies could guess
How their sweet perfume fills us with sorrowfulness;
If the motionless sky and the sea never still
Could know how with joy at their beauties we thrill;
If all that we love in this strange world below
A soul in exchange on our souls could bestow:
But the sea set around us, the sky set above,
Lilacs, roses, and you, sweet, know nothing of love.


And as he listened the past returned to René more vividly than ever; he
was back in his peaceful room again, and felt once more the secret
pleasure of rising each morning to resume his unfinished task. By
Claude's advice, and from a childish desire to imitate the ways of
genius--a foolish but pretty trait in most young writers--he had adopted
the method formerly practised by Balzac. In bed by eight o'clock at
night, he would get up before four in the morning, and, lighting the
fire and the lamp, would make himself some coffee over a little
spirit-stove, all prepared for him by his sister in the evening. As the
fire burned up brightly and the aroma of the inspiring Mocha filled the
little room, he would sit down at the table with Rosalie's portrait
before him and begin work. Gradually the noises of Paris grew more
distinct as the great city awakened once more to life. Then he would put
down his pen and gaze at the engravings that adorned the wall or turn
over the leaves of a book. About six o'clock Emilie would make her
appearance. In spite of her household cares, this loving sister found
time to copy day by day the lines that her brother had written. For
nothing in the world would she have allowed one of René's manuscripts
to pass into the hands of the printers. Poor Emilie! How happy it would
have made her to hear the applause that drowned Colette's voice, and
what unalloyed pleasure René's would have been had not the change in
his feelings with respect to Rosalie sent a pang of sadness through his
heart at the very moment when the play was finishing amidst the
enthusiasm of the whole audience.

'It is a glorious success,' said the Comtesse to the young author. 'You
will see how these people will fight for you.' And as if to corroborate
what might only have been the flattery of a gracious hostess, René
could hear, during the hubbub that succeeded the close of the piece,
broken sentences that came to him amid the _frou-frou_ of the dresses,
the noise of falling chairs, and the commonplaces of conversation.

'That's the author! Where? That young man. So young! Do you know him?
He's a good-looking fellow. Why does he wear his hair so long? I rather
like to see it--it looks artistic. Well, a man may be clever, and still
have his hair cut. But his play is charming. Charming! Charming! Who
introduced him to the Comtesse? Claude Larcher. Poor Larcher! Look at
him hanging round Colette. He and Salvaney will come to blows one of
these days. So much the better; it will cool their blood. Are you going
to stay to supper?'

These were a few of the snatches of conversation that reached the
author's sensitive ears as he bowed and blushed under the weight of the
compliments showered upon him by a woman who had carried him away from
Madame Komof almost by force. She was a long, lean creature of about
fifty, the widow of a M. de Sermoises, who, since his death, had been
promoted to 'my poor Sermoises,' after having been, while alive, the
laughing-stock of the clubs on account of his fair partner's behaviour.
The lady, as she grew older, had transferred her attention from men to
literature, but to literature of a serious and even devotional kind. She
had heard from the Comtesse in a vague sort of way that the author of
the 'Sigisbée' was the nephew of a priest, and the air of romance that
pervaded the little play gave her reason to think that the young writer
had nothing in common with the literature of the day, the tendencies of
which she held in virtuous execration. Turning to René with the
exaggerated tone of pomposity adopted by her in giving utterance to her
poor, prudish ideas--a judge passing sentence of death could scarcely be
more severe--she said: 'Ah, monsieur! what poetry! What divine grace! It
is Watteau on paper. And what sentiment! This piece is epoch-making,
sir--yes, epoch-making. We women are avenged by you upon those
self-styled analysts who seem to write their books with a scalpel in a
house of ill-fame.'

'Madame,' stammered the young man, taken off his feet by this
astonishing phraseology.

'You will come and see me, won't you?' she continued. 'I am at home on
Wednesdays from five to seven. I think you will prefer the people I
receive in my house to those you have met here to-night; the dear
Comtesse is a foreigner, you know. Some of the members of the _Institut_
do me the honour of consulting me about their works. I have written a
few poems myself. Oh! quite unpretentious things--lines to the memory of
poor Monsieur de Sermoises--a small collection that I have called
"Lilies from the Grave." You must give me your candid opinion upon them.
Madame Hurault--Monsieur Vincy,' she added, presenting the writer to a
woman of about forty, whose face and figure were still elegant in
outline. 'Charming, wasn't it? Watteau on paper!'

'You must be very fond of Alfred de Musset, sir, remarked this lady. She
was the wife of a Society man who, under the pseudonym of Florac, had
written several plays that had fallen flat in spite of the untiring
energy of Madame Hurault, who, for the past sixteen years, had not given
a single dinner at which some critic, some manager, or some person
connected with some critic or manager had not been present.

'Who is not fond of him at my age?' replied the young man.

'That is what I said to myself as I listened to your pretty verse,'
continued Madame Hurault; 'it produced the same effect as music already
heard.' Then, having launched her epigram, she remembered that in many a
young poet there lurks a future critic, and tried to smooth down by an
invitation the phrase that betrayed the cruel envy of a rival's wife. 'I
hope you will come and see us; my husband is not here, but he will be
glad to make your acquaintance. I am always at home on Thursdays from
five till seven.'

'Madame Ethorel--Monsieur Vincy,' said Madame de Sermoises, again
introducing René, but this time to a very young and very pretty
woman--a pale brunette, with large dreamy eyes and a delicacy of
complexion that contrasted with her full, rich voice.

'Ah! monsieur,' she began, 'how you appeal to the heart! I love that
sonnet which Lorenzo recites--let me see, how does it go?--


The spectre of a year long dead.'


'"The phantom of a day long dead,"' said René, involuntarily correcting
the line which the pretty lips had misquoted; and with unconscious
pedantry he repressed a smile, for the passage in question, two verses
of five lines each, presented not the slightest resemblance to a sonnet.

'That's it,' rejoined Madame Ethorel; 'divine, sir, divine! I am at home
on Saturdays from five till seven. A very small set, I assure you, if
you will do me the honour of calling.'

René had no time to thank her, for Madame de Sermoises, a prey to that
strange form of vanity that delights in reflected glory, and which
inspires both men and women with an irresistible desire to constitute
themselves the showman of any interesting personage, was already
dragging him away to fresh introductions. In this way he had to bow
first to Madame Abel Mosé, the celebrated Israelitish beauty, all in
white; then to Madame de Suave all in pink, and to Madame Bernard all in
blue. Then Madame de Komof once more took possession of him in order to
present him to the Comtesse de Candale, the haughty descendant of the
terrible marshal of the fifteenth century, and to her sister the
Duchesse d'Arcole, these high-sounding French names being succeeded by
others impossible to catch, and belonging to some of the hostess's
relatives. René was also called upon to shake hands with the men who
were in attendance on these ladies, and thus made the acquaintance of
the Marquis de Hère, the most careful man in town, who with an income
of twenty thousand francs lived as though he had fifty; of the Vicomte
de Brèves, doing his best to ruin himself for the third time; of
Crucé, the collector; of San Giobbe, the famous Italian shot, and of
three or four Russians.

The names of most of these Society women and clubmen were familiar to
the poet from his having read them, with childish avidity, in the
fashionable intelligence published by the newspapers for the edification
of young _bourgeois_ dreaming of high life. He had formed such grand and
entirely false notions of the 'upper ten' of Paris--a little world of
wealthy cosmopolitans rather than French aristocrats--that a feeling of
both rapture and disenchantment came over him at the realisation of one
of his earliest dreams. The splendour of his surroundings charmed him,
and his success soothed his professional vanity. There were smiles for
him on such tempting lips and kind looks in such glorious eyes. But
though all this was very flattering, it overwhelmed him with a sense of
shyness, and, whilst the crowd of strange faces struck a kind of terror
into his soul, the commonplace praise destroyed his illusions. What
makes Society--of whatever class it be--utterly insupportable to many
artists is the fact that they appear in it on rare occasions only, in
order to be lionised, and that they expect something extraordinary,
whilst those who really belong to Society move in the atmosphere of a
drawing-room with the natural ease that accompanies a daily habit. The
indescribable feeling of disenchantment, the daze of excitement produced
by endless introductions, the intoxication of flattery and the anguish
of timidity all made René eager to find his friend. Claude had
disappeared, but the poet's eyes fell upon Colette, who, having come
down from the stage in her bright-coloured dress of the last century and
her powdered hair, formed a striking contrast in colour to the black
coats of the men by whom she was surrounded. She, too, was evidently
embarrassed--a feeling betrayed by her somewhat nervous smile, by the
look of defiance in her eyes, and the rapid opening and shutting of her
fan. With her it was the embarrassment of an actress suddenly
transported beyond her sphere, proud of, and yet distressed by, the
attentions she commands.

She met René with a smile that showed real pleasure in finding one of
her own set, and breaking off her conversation with the owner of a
terra-cotta complexion, who could be no other than Claude's rival,
Salvaney, she cried, 'Ah! here is my author!--Well,' she added, shaking
hands with the poet, 'I suppose you are quite satisfied? How well
everything has gone off! Come, Salvaney, compliment Monsieur Vincy, even
if you don't understand anything about it. And your friend Larcher,' she
went on, 'has he disappeared? Tell him for me that he nearly made me die
of laughing on the stage. He was wearing a love-lock and his
weeping-willow air. For whom was he acting his Antony?'

A cruel look came into her greenish eyes, and in the curl of her lips
there was an expression of hatred called forth by the fact that the
unhappy Claude had gone without bidding her good night. Though she
deceived and tortured him, she loved him in her way, and loved above all
to bring him to her feet. She experienced a keen delight in making a
fool of him before Salvaney, and in thinking that the simple René would
repeat all her words to his friend.

'Why do you say such things?' replied the young man in an undertone
while Colette's partner was shaking hands with a friend; 'you know very
well that he loves you.'

'I know all about that,' said the actress with a harsh laugh. 'You
swallow all he tells you--I know the story. I am his evil genius, his
fatal woman, his Delilah. I have quite a heap of letters in which he
treats me to a lot of that kind of thing. That does not prevent him from
getting as drunk as a lord, under pretence of escaping from me. I
suppose it's my fault, too, that he gambles and drinks and uses morphia?
Get out!' And, shrugging her pretty shoulders, she added more gaily:
'The Comtesse is making signs for us to go down to supper. . . .
Salvaney, your arm!'

The numerous introductions had taken up some time, and René, suddenly
called back to his surroundings by Colette's last words, saw that there
were but very few people left in the _salons._ The Comtesse had not
invited more than about thirty to stay, and gave the signal for
adjourning to the supper-room by taking the arm of the most illustrious
of her guests, an ambassador then much run after in fashionable circles.
The other couples marched off behind her, mounting a narrow staircase
adorned with some marvellous wood-carving brought from Italy. This led
to an apartment which, though furnished as a boudoir, was really a
_salon_ in size. In the centre was a long table, laden with flowers, and
fruit, and sparkling with crystal and silver. Near each plate stood a
small pink glow-lamp encircled with moss--an English novelty that called
forth the admiration of the guests as they sat down wherever they chose.

René, having in his bashful way gone up alone among the last, chose an
empty seat between the Vicomte de Brèves and the fair woman in red whom
Larcher and he had met in the ante-room, and whom Claude had spoken of
as Madame Moraines, the daughter of the famous Bois-Dauffin, one of the
most unpopular ministers of Napoleon III. Feeling quite unobserved where
he was, for Madame Moraines was carrying on a conversation with her
neighbour on the left whilst the Vicomte de Brèves was busily engaged
with his partner on the right, René was at length able to collect his
thoughts and to take a look at the guests, behind whom the servants were
continually passing to and fro as they attended to their wants. His
glance wandered from Colette, who was laughing and flirting with
Salvaney, to Madame Komof, no doubt telling some fresh tale of her
spirit experiences, for her eyes had resumed their piercing brilliancy,
her looks were agitated, and her long bejewelled hands trembled as she
sat oblivious of all around her table--she generally so attentive and so
eager to please her guests! René's feeling of solitude had now become
almost painful in its intensity, either because the varied sensations
undergone that evening had tried his nerves or because the sudden
transition from flattery to neglect appeared to him a symbol of the
worthlessness of the world's applause. Some of the women who had
overwhelmed him with praise were gone; the others had naturally chosen
seats near their own friends. At the other end of the table he could see
himself reflected in the actor who had taken the part of Lorenzo, the
only one of the players besides Colette who had stayed to supper, and
who, looking very stiff and awkward in his gorgeous attire, was doing
justice to the viands without exchanging a word with anyone.

In this frame of mind René began to look at his fair neighbour, whose
charms had made such an impression upon him during their momentary
encounter in the hall. He had not been mistaken in judging her at the
first glance as a creature of thoroughly aristocratic appearance.
Everything about her, from her delicately-cut features to her slim waist
and slender wrists, had an air of distinction and of almost excessive
grace. Her hands seemed fragile, so dainty were her fingers and so
transparent. The fault of such kind of beauty lies in the very qualities
that constitute its charm. Its exceeding daintiness is frequently too
pronounced, and what might really be graceful becomes peculiar. Closer
study of Madame Moraines showed that this ethereal beauty encased a
being of strength, and that beneath all this exquisite grace was hidden
a woman who lived well, and whose sound health was revealed in many
ways. Her shapely head was gracefully poised on a full neck, while her
well-rounded shoulders were not disfigured by a single angle. When she
smiled she showed a set of sharp white teeth, and the way in which she
did honour to the supper testified that her digestion had withstood the
innumerable dangers with which fashionable women are beset--from the
pressure of corsets to late suppers, to say nothing of the daily habit
of dining out. Her eyes, of a soft, pale blue, would remind a dreamer of
Ophelia and Desdemona, but possessed that perfect, humid setting in
which the physiognomists of yore saw signs of a full enjoyment of life,
the freshness of her eyelids telling of happy slumbers that recruit the
whole constitution, whilst her lovely complexion showed her rich blood
to be free of any taint of anæmia.

To a philosophising physician, the contrast between the almost ideal
charm of this physiognomy and the evident materialism of this physiology
would have furnished food for reflections not altogether reassuring. But
the young man who was stealing glances at this beauty whilst toying with
the morsel of _chaufroid_ set before him was a poet--that is to say,
quite the opposite of a physician and a philosopher. Instead of
analysing, he was beginning to take a delight in this proximity. He had
that evening unwittingly succumbed to a spell of sensuality which was
personified, so to speak, in this captivating woman, around whom there
floated such a subtle and penetrating aroma. A faithful disciple of the
masters of Parnassus, he had in his youth possessed a childish mania for
perfumes, and he now inhaled with delight the rare and intoxicating
odour he recognised as white heliotrope, remembering how he had once,
when a prey to the nostalgia of refined passions, written a rhymed
conceit in which the following lines occurred:


Opoponax then sang, 'neath shades so sweet,
The story of those lips that never meet.


Once more, but more strongly than ever, there sprang up within him, the
simple wish he had expressed to Claude Larcher in the carriage that
evening--to be loved by a woman like the one whose sweet laughter was
that instant ringing in his ear. Dreams--idle dreams! That hour would
pass without his having even exchanged a word with this dreamlike
creature, as far from him here as if a thousand miles had lain between
them. Did she even know that he existed? But just as he was sadly asking
himself this question he felt his heart begin to beat more quickly.
Madame Komof, having by this time recovered from her excitement, had no
doubt perceived the distress depicted on the young man's face, and from
her place at the end of the table said to the Vicomte de Brèves: 'Will
you be good enough to introduce Monsieur Vincy to his neighbour?'

René saw the glorious blue eyes turn towards him, the fair head bend
slightly forward, and a sympathetic smile come to those lips which he
had just mentally compared to a flower, so fresh, pure, and red were
they. He expected to hear from Madame Moraines one of the commonplace
compliments that had exasperated him all the evening, and he was
surprised to find that, instead of at once speaking of his play, she
simply continued the topic upon which she had been conversing with her
neighbour.

'Monsieur Crucé and I were talking about the talent displayed by
Monsieur Perrin in putting plays on the stage. Do you remember the
scenery of the "Sphinx"?'

She spoke in a low, sweet voice that matched her style of beauty, and
gave her that additional and indefinable attraction which helps to
render a woman's charms irresistible to those who come under their
spell. René felt that this voice was as intoxicating as the scent,
which now grew stronger as she turned towards him. He had to make an
effort to reply, so keen was the sensation that overpowered him. Did
Madame Moraines perceive his agitation? Was she flattered by it, as
every woman is flattered by receiving the homage of unconquerable
timidity? However that might be, she was such an adept in the art of
opening a conversation--no easy matter between a Society belle and a
timid admirer--that, before ten minutes were over, René was talking to
her almost confidentially, and expressing his own ideas on stage matters
with a certain amount of natural eloquence, growing quite enthusiastic
in his praise of the performances at Bayreuth, as described to him by
his friends. Madame Moraines sat and listened, putting on that peculiar
air worn by these thoroughbred hypocrites when they are looking at the
man they have determined to ensnare. Had anyone told René that this
ideal woman cared as much about Wagner or music as about her first
frock, and that she really enjoyed only light operettas, he would have
looked as blank as if the boisterous mirth going on around him had
suddenly changed into cries of terror.

Colette, who had evidently had just a little more champagne than was
good for her, was laughing somewhat immoderately, and the guests were
already addressing each other by familiar appellations; amidst all this
noise René heard his neighbour say: 'How delightful it is to meet a
poet who is really what one expects a poet to be! I thought that the
species had died out. Do you know,' she added, with a smile that
reversed their parts, and turned her, the grand Society dame, into a
person intimidated by the indisputable superiority of another; 'do you
know that I was going to ask for an introduction to you just now in the
_salon?_ I had enjoyed the "Sigisbée" so much! But I said to
myself--what is the use? And now chance has brought us together. For a
man who has just had a triumph,' she continued, with a malicious little
smile, 'you were not looking very happy.'

'Ah! madame,' he replied; 'if you only knew--'and in obedience to the
irresistible power this woman already exercised over him, he added: 'You
will think me very ungrateful. I cannot explain to you why, but their
compliments seemed to freeze me.'

'Therefore I didn't pay you any,' she said, adding in a negligent tone,
'You don't go out much, I suppose?' 'You must not make fun of me,' he
replied with that natural grace that constituted his chief charm; 'this
is my first appearance in Society. Before this evening,' he went on,
seeing a look of curiosity come into the woman's eyes, 'I had only read
of it in novels. I am a real savage, you see.'

'But,' she asked, 'how do you spend your evenings?'

'I have worked very hard until lately,' he replied; 'I live with my
sister, and I know almost no one.'

'Who introduced you to the Comtesse?' inquired Madame Moraines.

'One of my friends, whom I dare say you know--Claude Larcher.'

'A charming man,' she said, 'with only one fault--that of thinking very
badly of women. You must not believe all he says,' she added, again
assuming her timid smile; 'he would deprave you. The poor fellow has
always had the misfortune to fall in love with flirts and coquettes, and
is foolish enough to think that all women are like them.'

As she uttered these words an expression of intense sadness came into
her eyes. Her handsome face betrayed all kinds of emotions, from the
pride of a woman who feels outraged by the cruel sayings of a misogynist
writer to pity for Claude, and even a kind of modest fear that René
might be led into similar errors--a fear that implied a mute esteem of
his character. A silence ensued, during which the young man was
surprised to find himself rejoicing in the absence of his friend. It
would have been painful to him to listen on his way home to the brutal
paradoxes with which Colette's jealous lover had regaled him during
their drive from the Rue Coëtlogon to the Rue du Bel-Respiro. He had
been right after all in silently protesting against Claude's withering
tirades, even before he had known a single one of these superior
creatures, towards whom he felt attracted by an irrepressible hope of
finding, amongst them, the woman he should love for life! And he sat
there listening to Madame Moraines as she spoke of secret troubles often
hidden by a life of pleasure, of virtues concealed under the mask of
frivolity, and of works of charity such as were undertaken by one or
other of the friends whom she named. She said all this so simply and so
sweetly that not a single intonation betrayed aught but a sincere love
of the good and the beautiful, and as the company rose from the table
she observed, with a kind of divine modesty at having thus laid bare her
inmost feelings:

'This is a very strange conversation for a supper; you must have heard
of so many "fives to sevens" that I hardly dare to ask you to come and
see me. But in case you should be passing that way, pray remember that I
am always at home before dinner on Opera days. I should like you to see
my husband, who is not here this evening--he wasn't very well. He made
me come, because the Comtesse had asked us so often--which proves,' she
added, as she shook hands with René, 'that one is sometimes rewarded
for doing one's duty, even though it be a social one.'



CHAPTER V

THE DAWN OF LOVE


The shock of the novel and varied sensations experienced by René Vincy
on that eventful evening had been so great that it was impossible for
him to analyse them as he made his way on foot from the Rue du
Bel-Respiro to the Rue Coëtlogon. Had Claude not left the house so
suddenly, tortured by the pangs of jealousy, the two friends would have
returned together. Whilst walking along the deserted streets with the
silent stars shining above, they would have indulged in one of those
confidential talks in which, when young, we give full utterance to the
feelings inspired by the events of the past few hours. By the mere
mention of the name of Madame Moraines, René might then have discovered
what a hold on his thoughts had suddenly been secured by this rare
specimen of beauty, the living embodiment of all his ideas of
aristocracy. Perhaps from Claude, too, he might have gathered a few
correct notions concerning the lady, and the difference that existed
between a mere fashionable woman like Madame Moraines and a real _grande
dame_, he would then have been spared the dangerous fever of imagination
which, all along his route, conjured up to his delight visions of
Suzanne. He had heard the Comtesse call her by that pretty name as she
gave her a farewell kiss, and he could see her again in her long,
fur-lined cloak, her shapely head looking quite lost encircled by the
deep ermine collar. He could again see the slight inclination of that
dainty head in his direction before she got into the carriage. He could
see her still, as she sat at supper, with that look in her glorious
eyes, so full of intelligence, and that way she had of moving her lips
to utter words, very simple in themselves, but each of which proved that
this woman's soul matched her beauty, just as her beauty was worthy of
her surroundings.

He was scarcely aware of the length of his journey, covering nearly a
third of Paris. He gazed up at the sky above, and down into the Seine
waters as they rolled darkly along, while the long lines of gas-lamps
before him seemed even to lengthen the dim, far-reaching perspective of
the streets. The night gave him an idea of immensity--a symbol, it
seemed to him then, of his own life. The mental formation peculiar to
poets who are poets only predisposes them to attacks of what, for want
of a more definite name, might be called the lyric state; this is
something like the intoxication produced by hope or despair, according
as the power of exaggerating present sensations to the highest degree is
applied to joy or sorrow. What, after all, was this entry into Society,
which for the moment seemed to this simple boy an entry upon a new life?
Scarcely a glance stolen through a half-open door, and which, to be of
any use at all, would have to be followed up by a course of petty
strategy that only an ambitious man would have dreamt of. A man eager to
make his way would have asked himself what impression he had created,
what kind of people he had met, which of the women who had invited him
were worth a single visit, and which of them deserved more assiduous
attentions. Instead of all that, the poet felt himself surrounded by an
atmosphere of happiness. The sweetness of the latter portion of the
evening spread itself over the whole, and he entirely forgot the
feelings of distress that had once or twice overwhelmed him.

It was in this frame of mind that he reached home. As he pushed the
heavy house door open, and crept on tip-toe to his room, it pleased him
to compare the world he had left behind with the world to which he
returned. Was it not this very contrast that lent his pleasure a tinge
of romance? Being, however, at that age when the nervous system recruits
itself with perfect regularity in spite of the most disordered state of
the mind and feelings, his head had no sooner touched his pillow than he
was fast asleep. If he dreamt of the splendour he had seen, of the
applause that had filled the vast _salon_, of the sweet face of Madame
Moraines set in a wealth of fair tresses, he was oblivious of it all
when he awoke about ten o'clock next morning.

A ray of sunlight came streaming through a narrow slit in the blinds.
All was quiet in the little street, and there was no noise in the
house--nothing to betray the necessary but exasperating performance of
matutinal household duties. This silence surprised the young man. He
looked at his watch to see how long he had slept, and once more he
experienced that feeling, of which he never tired--that of being beloved
by his sister with an idolatrous intensity extending to even the
smallest details of life. At the same time recollections of the
preceding evening came back to his mind. A score of faces rose up before
him, all gradually melting away into the delicate features, mobile lips,
and blue eyes of Madame Moraines. He saw her even more distinctly than
he had done a moment after leaving her, but neither the clearness of the
vision nor the infinite delight it afforded him to dwell upon it led him
to suspect the feelings that were awakening within him. It was an
artistic impression, nothing more--an embodiment, as it were, of all the
most beautiful ideals he had ever read into the lines of romancists and
poets. Idly reclining on his pillow, he enjoyed thinking of her in the
same way as he enjoyed looking round his old, familiar room, with its
air of peace and quiet. His gaze dwelt lovingly upon all the objects
visible in the subdued light--upon his table, put in order by Emilie's
hands, upon his engravings set off by the dark tone of the red cloth,
upon the bindings of his favourite books, upon the marble chimney-piece
with its row of photographs in leather frames. His mother's portrait was
among them--the poor mother who had died before seeing the realisation
of her most ardent hopes, she once so proud of the few scattered
fragments she had occasionally come across in tidying her son's room!
His father's likeness was there too, with its emaciated, drink-sodden
features. Often did René think that the want of will power, of which he
was dimly conscious, had been transmitted to him by his unhappy parent.
But that morning he was not in the humour to reflect upon the dark side
of life, and it was with childish glee that he gave two or three smart
raps on the bedside. This was his manner of summoning Françoise in the
morning to pull up the blinds and open the shutters. Instead of the
servant it was Emilie that entered, and as soon as the sunlight was let
into the room it was on his sister's face with its loving smile that the
young man gazed--a face now beaming with hopeful curiosity.

'A triumph!' he cried, in reply to Emilie's mute interrogation.

The kind-hearted creature clapped her hands for joy, and sitting down on
a low chair at the foot of the bedstead, said, in the tone that we use
to a spoilt child: 'You mustn't get up yet . . . Françoise will bring
you your coffee. I thought that you would wake up about ten, and I had
just ground it when you knocked. You shall have it quite fresh.' The
maid entering at that moment, holding in her big red hands the tray with
its little load of china, Emilie continued: 'I will serve you myself.
Fresneau has gone to take Constant to school--so we have plenty of
time--tell me all about it.' And René was obliged to give her a full
account of the _soirée_, without omitting any details.

'What did Larcher say?' asked his sister. 'What was the courtyard like?
And the hall? What did the Comtesse wear?' She was highly amused by the
fantastic metaphors of Madame de Sermoises, and cried: 'What a wretch!'
when she heard the epigram of the unsuccessful playwriter's wife; she
laughed at the ignorance of pretty Madame Ethorel, and was indignant at
Colette's cruelty. But when the poet attempted to describe the dainty
features of Madame Moraines, and to give her an idea of their talk at
supper, she felt as though she would have liked to thank the exquisite
lady who had thus at the first glance discovered what René really was.
The habits she had contracted long years since of seeing everything
through her brother's eyes and senses made her the most dangerous of
confidantes for the poet. She possessed the same imaginative nature as
he himself--an artistic imagination yearning after the beautiful--and,
since it was all for another's sake, she gave herself up to it
unreservedly. There is a kind of impersonal feminine immorality peculiar
to mothers, sisters, and all women in love which ignores the laws of
conscience where the happiness of one particular man is at stake.
Emilie, who was all self-denial and modesty in what concerned herself,
indulged only in dreams of splendour and ambition for her brother, often
giving expression to thoughts which René dared hardly formulate.

'Ah! I knew you would succeed,' she cried. 'It's all very well for the
Offarels to talk, but your place is not in our modest set. What you
writers want is all this grandeur and magnificence. Heavens! how I wish
you were rich! But you will be some day. One of these fine ladies will
fall in love with you and marry you, and even in a palace you will not
cease to be my loving brother, I know. Is it possible for you to go on
living like this for ever? Can you fancy yourself in a couple of rooms
on the fourth floor with a lot of crying children and a wife with a pair
of servant's hands like mine'--holding them out for his inspection--'and
being obliged to work by the hour, like a cab-driver, to earn your
living? Here, it is true, you have not lived in luxury, but you have had
your time to yourself.

'Dear, good sister!' exclaimed René, moved to tears by the depths of
affection revealed in these words, and still more by the moral support
they lent to his secret desires. Although Rosalie's name had never been
mentioned between them in any particular way, and Emilie had never been
taken into her brother's confidence, René was well aware that his
sister had long guessed his innocent secret. He knew that, holding such
ambitious views, she would never have approved of such a marriage. But
would she have spoken as she did if she had known all the details? Would
she have advised him to commit an act of treachery--for that it was, and
of a kind, too, most repugnant to a heart born for noble deeds--the
treachery of a man who transfers his love, and foresees, nay, already
feels, the pain which his irresistible perfidy will necessarily inflict
upon himself?

As soon as Emilie had gone René, his mind busied with the thoughts his
sister's last words had suggested, rose and dressed himself, and for the
first time found courage to look the situation well in the face. He
remembered the little garden in the Rue de Bagneux, and the evening when
he had first impressed a kiss upon the girl's blushing cheek. It is
true, he had never been her avowed lover; but what of those kisses and
their secret betrothal? One truth appeared to him indisputable--that a
man has no right to steal a maiden's love unless he feels strong enough
to cherish it for ever. But he also felt that his sister had given voice
to the thought that had filled him ever since the success of his play
had opened up such a horizon of hope. 'This grandeur and magnificence!'
Emilie had said, and again the vision of all the splendour he had
witnessed rose up before him--again, set in this rich frame, he saw the
face of Madame Moraines with that sweet smile of hers. In his loyalty
the young poet tried to banish this seductive apparition from his mind.

'Poor Rosalie, how sweet she is, and how she loves me!' he said, finding
some sad satisfaction in the contemplation of the deep love he had
inspired, and carrying these feelings with him to the breakfast table.
How simply that table was laid, and how little resemblance it bore to
the splendid display of the previous night. The table-cover was of
oil-cloth, adorned with coloured flowers; on this stood a very modest
service of white china, the heavy glasses that accompanied it being
rendered necessary by the combined clumsiness of Fresneau, Constant, and
Françoise, which would have made the use of crystal too costly for the
family budget. Fresneau, with his long beard and his look of
distraction, ate quickly, leaning his elbows on the table and carrying
his knife to his mouth; he was as common in manners as he was kind of
heart, and, as if to emphasise more strongly by contrast the impression
which the idle cosmopolitanism of high life had made upon René, he
laughingly gave on account of his morning.

At seven he had given a lesson at Ecole Saint-André. From eight to ten
he had taken a class of boys in the same school who were still too young
to follow the ordinary curriculum. Then he had just had time to jump
into a Pantheon omnibus which took him to a third lesson in the Rue
d'Astorg. 'I bought a paper on the way,' added the good man, 'to read
the account of last night's affair. Dear me,' he exclaimed, undoing the
strap that held his small parcel of books, 'I must have lost it.'

'You are so careless,' said Emilie almost angrily.

'Oh! it doesn't matter!' cried René gaily; 'Offarel will tell us all
about it. You know that he is my walking guide-book. By to-night he will
have read all the Paris and provincial newspapers.'

Knowing that the smallest details of last night's performance would be
collected by Rosalie's father and commented upon by her mother, René
was the more anxious to give the girl a full account of it himself.
There is an instinct in man--is it hypocrisy or pity?--which impels him
to treat with the utmost regard the woman who no longer holds his
affections. Directly lunch was over he bent his steps towards the Rue de
Bagneux. It had formerly been his custom to call upon the Fresneaus
pretty frequently about that time. While covering the short distance he
had often extemporised a few verses, after the manner of Heine, which he
poured into Rosalie's ear when they were alone. The power of walking in
a day-dream had, however, long since left him, and rarely had the
vulgarity of this corner of Paris struck him to such a degree. All in it
was eloquent of the sordid lives of the _petit bourgeois_--from the
number of the little shops to the display of their cheap and varied
wares that covered half the pavement. In the windows of the restaurants
were bills of fare offering meals of various courses at extraordinarily
low prices. Even the cooking utensils on sale in the bazaars seemed to
have an air of poverty about them.

These and a score of other details reminded the young man of the limited
resources of small incomes, of an existence reduced to that shabby
gentility which has not the horrible and attractive picturesqueness of
absolute want. When we begin to love we find in all the surroundings of
our beloved so many reasons for increased affection, and when we cease
to love these same details furnish the heart with as many reasons for
further hardening. Why did the impression made upon René by the
wretchedness of the neighbourhood cause him to feel annoyed with
Rosalie? Why did the appearance of the Rue de Bagneux make him as angry
with the girl as any personal wrong done to himself? This street, with
its line of old houses and a blank wall at the bottom, had a most
deserted and poverty-stricken air. At the moment when René entered it
one end was almost blocked up by a cart heavily laden with straw, the
three horses yoked to it, in country fashion, by stout ropes, standing
with their heads half hidden in their nosebags whilst the driver was
finishing his dinner in a small, greasy-looking cookshop. A Sister of
Mercy was walking along the pavement on the left carrying a large
umbrella under her arm; the wind flapped the wings of her immense white
cap up and down, and the cross of her rosary beat against her blue serge
dress. Why, after having heaped upon Rosalie all the displeasure caused
by the sight of her miserable surroundings, did René involuntarily
connect Madame Moraines with the religious ideas the good Sister's dress
evoked? The manner in which that beautiful creature had spoken only the
night before of the pious works performed by many so-called frivolous
women came back to him. Three times that day had Suzanne's image come
before him, and each time more distinctly. Great heavens! What joy were
his if his good genius brought him face to face with her in some retired
street like this as she was going to visit her poor! But that was out of
the question, so René turned down a passage at the end of which were
the ground floor apartments occupied by the Offarels. Profiting by the
example of the Fresneaus, they, too, had realised the ambition of every
family of the _petite bourgeoisie_ of Paris, and had found in this
deserted quarter of the capital a suite of rooms with a bit of garden as
large as a pocket-handkerchief.

'Ah! Monsieur René!' exclaimed Rosalie, coming to the door in answer to
the young man's ring at the bell. The Offarels only employed the
services of a charwoman who left at twelve o'clock, and concerning whom
the old lady always had an inexhaustible stock of anecdotes. At the
sight of her lover, poor Rosalie, generally somewhat pale, coloured with
joy, and she could not repress the cry of pleasure that rose to her
lips.

'How good of you to come and tell us so soon how your play got on!' she
said, taking the visitor into the dining-room, a dismal apartment with a
north light, and in which there was no fire. Madame Offarel was so
stingy that in winter, when the weather was not too cold, she would save
the expense of fuel, and make her daughters wear mittens and capes
instead! 'We are just going through the linen,' remarked the good lady,
motioning René to a chair.

On the table lay the whole of the fortnightly washing, from the old
man's shirts to the girls' underclothes, the bluish whiteness of the
calicots and cottons being enhanced by the darkness of the room. It was
the poor linen of a family in straitened circumstances; there were
stockings evidently darned times out of number, serviettes full of
holes, cuffs and collars frayed at the edges--in fact, a whole heap of
things that Rosalie felt were not for a poet's eyes. She therefore gave
him no time to sit down, but said, 'Monsieur René had much better come
into the drawing-room--it's so dark here.'

Before her mother had had time to say anything further she had pushed
the visitor into the apartment honoured by that pompous name, and which,
in reality, more often served as a workroom for Angélique. The latter
added a little to the income of the family by occasionally translating
an English novel, and was at that moment seated at a small table near
the window, writing. A dictionary was lying at her feet, those
extremities being encased in a pair of slippers the backs of which she
had trodden down for ease. No sooner had she caught sight of Vincy than
she gathered up her books and papers and fled.

'Excuse me, Monsieur René,' she exclaimed, brushing back with one hand
the hair that hung about her head and casting an apologetic look at her
dress--a loose morning wrapper wanting some half-dozen buttons down the
front. 'I am a perfect fright--don't look at me, please.'

The young man sat down and let his eyes wander round the well-known
room, whose chief ornament consisted in a row of aquarelles executed by
M. Offarel in Government time. There were about a dozen, some
representing bits of landscape that he had discovered in his Sunday
walks, others being copies of pictures he admired, and which René's
more modern taste therefore detested. A faded felt carpet, six
cloth-covered chairs and a sofa completed the furniture of this room,
which René had once looked upon as a symbol of almost idyllic
simplicity, but which now appeared doubly hateful to him in his present
state of mind, aggravated by the acidity of Madame Offarel's accents.

'Well, did you enjoy yourself amongst all your grand folks last night? I
suppose your friend only visits people now who keep a carriage, eh?
Whenever he opens his mouth you hear of nothing but countesses and
princesses. Dear me! He needn't think himself as grand as all that--he
was giving lessons only ten years ago.'

'Mamma!' exclaimed Rosalie in beseeching tones.

'Well, what does he want to be so stuck up about?' continued the old
lady. 'He looks at us as much as to say "Poor devils!"'

'How mistaken you are in him!' replied René. 'He is rather fond of
going into smart society, it is true, but that is only natural in an
artist. Why, it's the same with me,' he went on, with a smile. 'I was
delighted to go to this affair last night and see that magnificent house
filled with flowers and fine dresses. Do you think that prevents me
appreciating my modest home and my old friends? All writers have that
mad longing for splendour--even Balzac and Musset had it. It is a
childish fancy of no importance.'

Whilst the young man was speaking Rosalie darted a look at her mother
that told of more happiness than her poor eyes had expressed for months
past. In thus confessing to and ridiculing his own inmost feelings,
René was obeying impulses too complicated for the simple girl to
understand. When Madame Offarel had spoken of 'your grand folks' the
young man had seen by the look of anguish in her daughter's eyes that
his love for the false glamour of elegance had not escaped Rosalie's
perspicacity. He was ashamed of being found guilty of such a plebeian
failing, and therefore laid bare his impressions as though he were not
their dupe--partly in order to reassure the girl and spare her
unnecessary pain, partly in order to indulge in a little weakness
without having to reproach himself unduly.

Certain natures--and, owing to the habit of introspection, these are
frequently found amongst writers--find pardon for their sins in mere
confession. In defending Claude Larcher, René, with an irony that would
have escaped sharper critics than a trusting girl, managed to administer
a sharp rebuke to his own follies. Whilst openly ridiculing what he
himself called his snobbishness, he continued to make those
mean-spirited mental comparisons that would force themselves upon him
all that day. He could not help measuring the gulf that separated the
creatures he had seen at Madame Komof's--living blooms reared in the
hothouse of European aristocracy--from the pale-faced and simple-looking
creature before him, her hands spoilt by work, her hair tied back in a
knot, and dressed so plainly as to look almost uncouth. The comparison,
when dwelt upon, became quite painful, and caused the young man one of
those inexplicable fits of ill-humour that always nonplussed Rosalie.

Knowing him as she did, she could always see when he had them, but she
never guessed their cause. She knew by instinct that there were two
Renés existing side by side--the one kind, tender, and good, easily
moved and unable to withstand grief--in a word, the René she loved; the
other cold, indifferent, and easily irritated. The bond that united
these two beings she was, however, unable to find. All she knew was that
before the triumphant success of the 'Sigisbée' she had seen only the
first of these two Renés, and since then only the second. She was
afraid to say 'the unfortunate success;' she had been so proud of it,
and yet she would have given so much to go back to the time when her
darling was poor and unknown, but all her own. How quickly he could make
his voice hard, so hard that even the words addressed to another seemed
by their intonation alone to be intended to wound her. At that moment,
for instance, he was talking to her mother, and the mere accent that he
gave to words empty in themselves touched Rosalie to the quick.

Suddenly Madame Offarel, who had been listening intently for a few
seconds, started up. 'I can hear Cendrette scratching at the door,' she
said; 'the dear creature wants to go out.'

With these words she returned to the dining-room in order to open the
yard door for her favourite cat. She was probably delighted to have an
excuse for leaving the two young people together; for, Cendrette having
gone off, she stood for some time stroking Raton, another of her feline
boarders. 'How clever you are, my Raton! How I love you, my little
demon!' These were some of the pet names that she had devised for her
cats, and as she repeated them and a dozen others in rather loud tones
she was saying to herself: 'If he has come at once, that proves he is
still faithful to her--but when will he propose? Poor girl! He'll not
find a jewel like her in any of his gilded saloons. She's pretty,
gentle, good, and true!' Then aloud: 'Isn't that so, my Raton? You
understand, don't you, my son?' And as the cat arched her back, rubbed
her head against her mistress's skirt, and purred voluptuously, the
mother's internal monologue went on: 'And he is a good match, too. We
didn't despise him before; so we have a right to set our caps at him
now. She won't have to drudge, as I do for Offarel. It's a pity that she
should have to spoil her pretty fingers botching up this old linen.'
With the mechanical activity of an old housewife, she made a small pile
of the handkerchiefs already gone through, and continued her thoughts:
'Her little dowry, too! What a surprise it will be!' By exercising the
most stringent economy, she had managed to save, out of her husband's
modest salary, some fifteen thousand francs, which she had invested
unknown to M. Offarel. She smiled to herself and listened with some
anxiety. 'I wonder what they are talking about!'

She knew that her daughter was fond of René, but she was still ignorant
of the secret bonds that united the young people. What would have been
her astonishment had she known that Rosalie had already frequently but
timidly exchanged stolen kisses with her lover, and that immediately her
mother's back was turned she had taken René's hand in hers and murmured
in a voice of gentle reproach, 'How could you go off last night without
saying good-bye?'

'Claude dragged me out,' said René, reddening, and pressing his
sweetheart's fingers. She was, however, not taken in either by the
excuse or the feigned caress, and, drawing back her hand, shook her head
sadly, while her words came out with an evident effort.

'No,' she observed; 'you are not so nice to me as you used to be. How
long is it since you last wrote me a line of poetry?'

'You're not so silly as to think people can sit down and write poetry
when they like?' replied the young man, almost harshly. He was seized by
that irritability which is a sure sign of the decline of love. The
obligation to make a show of sentiment--a most cruel duty--was felt by
him in one of its thousand forms.

By an instinct which leads them to sound the depths of their present
misfortune whilst desperately clinging to their past happiness, the
women who feel love slipping from them formulate these small,
unpretending demands that have the same effect upon a man as a clumsy
tug at the curb has upon a restive horse. The lover who has come with
the firm intention of being gentle and affectionate immediately rears.
Rosalie had made a mistake; she felt that as plainly as she had felt
René's indifference a few minutes ago, and a feeling of despair, such
as she had never known before, crept over her. Since her lover's
departure on the previous evening she had been jealous--she had no
reason to be, and she would scarcely admit to herself that she was--but
she was jealous all the same. 'Whom will he meet there? To whom is he
talking?' she had asked herself again and again instead of going to
sleep. And now she thought, 'Ah! he is already unfaithful, or he would
not have spoken to me in this manner.'

The silence that followed the harsh reply was so painful that she
timidly asked, 'Did the actors play their parts well last night?'

Why was she hurt to see how eager René was to answer her question, and
to turn the conversation from a more serious subject? Because the heart
of a woman who is really in love--and that Rosalie was--is susceptible
to the lightest trifles, and in despair she heard René reply: 'They
acted divinely,' after which he immediately plunged into a dissertation
on the difference between acting on a stage some distance from the
audience and acting in the limited space of a drawing-room.

'Poor child!' thought Madame Offarel as she returned to the _salon_,
'she is so simple; she has not got him to talk of anything but that
wretched play!' Then, in order to be revenged on some one for René's
procrastination in proposing, she added aloud, 'Tell me--isn't your
friend Larcher rather jealous of your success?'



CHAPTER VI

AN OBSERVER'S LOGIC


René had entered the house in the Rue de Bagneux a prey to painful
impressions, and when he left it his impressions were more painful
still. Then he had been discontented with his surroundings--now he was
discontented with himself. He had called on Rosalie with the idea of
giving her a little pleasure, and sparing her the trifling pain of
hearing all about his success from the mouth of another; instead of
which his visit had only caused the girl fresh grief. Although the poet
had never harboured aught else than an imaginary love for this child
with the beautiful black eyes, that love had gone deep enough to implant
in his breast what is last to die in the break-up of any passion--an
extraordinary power of following the least movements of that virgin
heart, and a pity, as unavailing as it was distressing, for all the pain
he had caused it.

Once more he asked himself this question: 'Is it not my duty to tell her
I no longer love her?' An insoluble question, for it admits of only two
replies--both impossible ones--the first, cruel and brutal in its
egoism, if our feelings are plain; the second a frightful mixture of
pity and treachery, if they are complicated. The young man shook his
head as if to chase away the obtrusive thought, and muttering the
eternal 'We shall see--later on,' by which so many agonies have been
prolonged, forced himself to look about him. He had mechanically turned
his steps towards that portion of the Faubourg Saint-Germain where, in
younger days, he had loved to walk, and, inspired by Balzac, that
dangerous Iliad of poor plebeians, imagine that he saw the face of a
Duchesse de Langeais or de Maufrigneuse looking out from every window.

He was now in that wide but desolate thoroughfare called Rue
Barbet-de-Jouy, which, by reason of the total absence of shops, the
grandeur of its buildings, and the countrified look of its enclosed
gardens, seems a fitting frame for some fine lady of artificial
aristocracy. An inevitable association of ideas brought René's mind
back to the Komof mansion, and the thought of that lordly dwelling
conjured up, for the fourth time that day, but more clearly than ever,
the image of Madame Moraines. This time, however, worn-out by the
fretful emotions through which he had passed, he became entirely
absorbed in the contemplation of that image instead of trying to dispel
it. To think of Madame Moraines was to forget Rosalie, and experience,
moreover, a peculiarly sweet sensation.

After a few minutes of this mental contemplation the natural roamings of
his fancy led the young man to ask himself, 'When shall I see her
again?' He recalled the tone of her voice and her smile as she had said,
'On Opera days, before dinner.' Opera days? This novice of Society did
not even know them. He felt a childish pleasure, out of all proportion
to its ostensible cause--like that of a man who is realising his wildest
dreams--in gaining the Boulevard des Invalides as quickly as possible
and in finding one of the posts that display theatrical advertisements.
It was Friday, and the bills announced a performance of the _Huguenots_.
René's heart began to beat faster. He had forgotten Rosalie, his
remorse of a little while ago, and the question that he had put to
himself. That inner voice which whispers in our soul's ear such advice
as would, upon reflection, astonish us, had just said to him: 'Madame
Moraines will be at home to-day. What if you went?'

'What if I went?' he repeated aloud, and the bare idea of this visit
parched his throat and set him trembling. It is the facility with which
extreme emotions are brought into play upon the slightest provocation
that makes the inner life of young men full of such strange and rapid
transitions from the heights of joy to the depths of misery. René had
no sooner put the temptation that beset him into words than he shrugged
his shoulders and said, 'It's madness.' Having arrived at that decision,
he commenced to plead the cause of his own desire under pretence of
summing up the objections. 'How would she receive me?' The remembrance
of her beautiful eyes and of her sweet smile made him reply, 'But she
was so gentle and so indulgent.' Then he resumed his questioning. 'What
could I say to justify a visit less than twenty-four hours after having
left her?' 'Pooh!' replied the tempting voice, 'the occasion brings its
own inspiration.' 'But I am not even dressed.' Well, he had only to go
to the Rue Coëtlogon. 'But I don't even know her address.' 'Claude
knows it--I have only to ask him.'

The idea of calling on Larcher having once presented itself to his mind,
he felt that it would be impossible not to put at least that part of his
plan into execution. To call on Claude was the first step towards
reaching Madame Moraines; but, instead of confessing that, René was
hypocrite enough to pretend other reasons. Ought he not really to go and
obtain news of his friend? He had left him so unhappy, so truly
miserable, on the previous evening. Perhaps he was now fretting like a
child? Perhaps he was preparing to pick a quarrel with Salvaney? In this
way the poet excused himself for the haste with which he was now making
for the Rue de Varenne. It was not only Suzanne's address that he hoped
to obtain, but information about her too--and all the while he was
trying to persuade himself that he was simply fulfilling a duty of
friendship.

In a very short time he had reached the corner of the Rue de
Bellechasse, and a few moments later he found himself before the great
doors of the strange house in which Larcher had taken up his abode.
Pushing these open, he entered an immense courtyard in which everything
spoke of desolation, from the grass that grew between the stones to the
cobwebs that covered the windows of the deserted stables on the left. At
the bottom of the courtyard stood a noble mansion, built in the reign of
Louis XIV., and bearing the proud motto of the Saint-Euvertes, whose
town house this had been, _Fortiter._ The stones of this building,
already bearing traces of the ravages of time, its long shuttered
windows and its silence were all in harmony with the solitude of the
courtyard. The old Faubourg Saint-Germain contains many such houses,
strange as the destiny of their owners, and which will always prove
peculiarly attractive to minds in search of the psychologically
picturesque--if we may unite these two words to define an almost
indefinable shade of meaning.

René had heard the history of this mansion from his friend; how the old
Marquis de Saint-Euverte, reduced to despair by the almost simultaneous
loss of his wife, his three daughters, and their husbands, had, six
years ago, gone to live with his grandsons on his estates in Poitou. An
epidemic of typhoid fever suddenly breaking out in a small
watering-place where all the family were staying together had made this
happy old man the lonely guardian of a tribe of orphans. Even during the
lifetime of the Marquise--an excellent business woman--two small wings
in the house had been let to quiet tenants. These wings had also a
history of their own, the grandfather of the present Marquis having
placed them at the disposal of two cousins--Knights of Saint-Louis and
at one time political refugees--who, after a wretched, wandering
existence, had ended their days here. M. de Saint-Euverte had left
everything as his wife had arranged it. Claude therefore one day found
himself the only tenant in the whole of this silent, gloomy building,
for the occupant of the other wing had been scared away by the
loneliness of the place, and no one else had yet seemed anxious to bury
himself in this tomb, standing between a desolate courtyard and a still
more desolate garden.

But all these points, that were so displeasing to others, were a source
of delight to Larcher. The oddness of the place appealed particularly to
this dreamer and maker of paradoxes. It pleased him to set his irregular
existence as an artist and a swell clubman in this framework of imposing
solitude; and here, too, he could shut himself up with his secret
agonies. The love of analytical introspection with which he knew he was
infected, and which, like a doctor cultivating his own disease for the
sake of a fine 'case,' he carefully nurtured, could not have found a
better home. Then, again, here Larcher enjoyed absolute freedom. The
_concierge_, won over by a few theatre tickets and fascinated by the
reputation of his tenant, would have allowed him to hold a saturnalian
feast in every hall of the Saint-Euverte mansion had Claude felt any
desire to found another _Club de Haschischins_ or to reproduce some
scene of literary orgies out of love for the romanticism of 1830. The
_concierge_ was absent from his post when René arrived, so that the
poet walked straight across the courtyard to the house. Entering the
main hall, where the magnificent lamps bore testimony to the grandeur of
the receptions once held here, he mounted the stone staircase, whose
wrought-iron balustrade formed a splendid ornament to the huge well of
the house. On the second floor he turned down a corridor, at the end of
which heavy curtains of Oriental texture proclaimed a modern
installation hidden in the depths of a mansion that seemed to be peopled
only with the bewigged ghosts of _grands seigneurs._

The man-servant who answered his ring possessed that type of face
peculiar to nearly all custodians of old buildings; it is met with both
in the guides of ruined castles and in the vergers of cathedrals, and
shows how vast must be the influence which places have on human beings.
It is a face with a greenish tint and with a hawk-like expression about
the eyes and mouth; from its appearance one would suppose that it smelt
damp. Ferdinand--that was the name of this individual--differed from his
kind only in dress, which, consisting as it did of Claude's cast off
clothes, was fashionable and smart. He had been valet to the late Comte
de Saint-Euverte, and, in addition to his duties as Larcher's servant,
he was a kind of housekeeper for the whole mansion, from which he seldom
emerged more than once a month. The _concierge_ went on all the writer's
errands, and his wife did the cooking. This little world lived entirely
under the spell of Claude, who, through his knowledge of character and
his infantile goodness of heart, possessed in a rare degree the gift of
winning the attachment of his inferiors. When Ferdinand saw who the
caller was he could not help showing great uneasiness.

'They shouldn't have let you come up, sir!' he said. 'I shall get into
trouble.'

'Is Monsieur Larcher at work?' asked René, smiling at the man's terror.

'No,' replied Ferdinand in an undertone, and quite at a loss what to do
with a visitor whom his master had evidently not expected. 'But Madame
Colette is here.'

'Ask him whether he can see me for a minute,' said the poet, curious to
know how the two lovers stood after the scene of the preceding evening;
and, in order to conquer the valet's hesitation, he added: 'I'll take
all the responsibility.'

'You may come up, sir,' was the answer with which he returned, and,
preceding René through the ante-room, he took him up the small inner
staircase that led to the three apartments usually inhabited by Claude,
and which the writer either called his 'laboratory' or his
'torture-chamber,' according to the mood he was in.

The staircase and the first two of the three rooms were remarkable for
the richness of their carpets and hangings. The faint light that
filtered through the stained-glass windows on this dull February
afternoon scarcely cast a shadow, either in the smoking-room with its
morocco-covered furniture or in the large _salon_ lined with books.
Claude's favourite nook was a den at the end, the walls of which were
hung with some dark material and adorned with a few canvases and
_aquarelles_ of the most modern painters of the day--these being what
the writer's extravagant fancy preferred. There were two opera boxes by
Forain, a dancing girl by Degas, a rural scene by Raffaelli, a sea-piece
by Monet, four etchings by Félicien Rops, and on a draped pedestal a
bust of Larcher himself by Rodin. The bust was a splendid piece of work,
in which the great sculptor had reproduced with marvellous skill all
that might be read in his model's face--qualms of morality mingled with
libertinism, bold reflection allied to a weak will, innate idealism hand
in hand with an almost systematically acquired corruption. A low
bookcase, a desk in one corner, three fauteuils in Venetian style with
negroes supporting the arms, and a wide green leather couch completed
the furniture of this retreat, clouded at that moment with the smoke of
Colette's Russian cigarette.

The young lady was lying at full length on the couch, her fair hair
tumbling about her ears, and attired in somewhat masculine style, with a
stand-up collar and an open jacket. Her short plain cloth skirt revealed
a pair of neat ankles and long narrow feet encased in black silk
stockings and patent leather shoes. Her sunken cheeks were pale--that
pallor produced in most theatrical women by the constant use of paint,
by late hours, and by the fatigues of an arduous profession.

'_Ah! mon petit Vincy_,' she cried, holding out her hand to the visitor,
'you have come just in time to save me from a beating. I only wish you
knew how badly this boy treats me! Come, Claudie,' she added, shaking
her finger at her lover, who was seated at her feet, 'say it's not true
if you dare.' And with a graceful movement of her lithe and supple
body--she herself would confess that she scarcely ever wore a
corset--the charming creature rose to a sitting posture, laid her fair
head on Claude's shoulder, and placed between his lips the cigarette she
had just been smoking. The wretched man looked at his young friend with
shame and supplication written on his face; then, turning to Colette,
his eyes filled with tears. At this the actress's behaviour became more
wanton still, and leaning forward upon her lover's shoulder, she gazed
into his eyes until she saw in them the look of passion that she knew so
well how to turn to her own advantage.

A dead silence ensued. The fire burned brightly in the grate, and a
solitary sunbeam, making its way through the coloured glass, fell in a
long red streak upon the girl's face. René had been present at scenes
of this kind too often to feel surprised at the want of modesty of
either his friend or Colette. He was well acquainted with the strange
cynicism of their nature; but he also remembered Claude's terrible
language the night before, and the cruel words his mistress had uttered
after his disappearance. He was astounded to see to what depths of
degradation the writer's weakness dragged him down, and to witness such
proofs of this wretched woman's inconsistency. In the close atmosphere
of this room, impregnated with the perfume that Colette used, and before
the almost immodest attitude of the pair before him, there came over him
a feeling of sensuality with which he was already too familiar. The
sight of this depraved creature--though her depravity was generally
clothed in graceful forms--had often awakened in him ideas of a physical
passion very different from any he had hitherto known. She had
frequently received him in her dressing-room at the theatre, and as she
stood in careless dishabille before her glass putting the finishing
touches to her face, or completing, with unblushing indifference, the
more hidden details of her toilet, she had appeared to him like some
temptress personifying the highest forms of voluptuousness, and at such
times he would envy Claude as much as he sometimes pitied him. But these
feelings would soon be dispelled by the disgust with which the moral
degradation of the actress inspired him and by the burning scruples of
friendship that animate and restrain the young. René would have been
horrified to find himself, even for a moment, coveting what he
considered his friend's property, and perhaps the knowledge of this
delicacy of feeling went for something in Colette's behaviour. Out of
sheer wantonness she amused herself by displaying her beauty before him,
just as we hold up a flower to be smelt when we know the hands will not
be put out to seize it. Wantonness it was, too, that led the misguided
girl to dally with Claude and to lavish such caresses upon him before
René.

All this, however, produced in the poet a vague physical longing that he
could not repress; it grew upon him unconsciously, and, by an
association of desires, more difficult to interrupt in its secret
workings than an association of ideas, the vision of Madame Moraines was
once more before him, surrounded by the halo of seduction that had so
completely dazzled him on the previous evening. Two things were now
obvious to René: one was, that he must go and call on that woman
to-day; the other, that he would never be able to utter her name and ask
for her address before the lascivious creature who was torturing Claude
with her kisses.

'Get away,' said the writer, pushing her from him; 'I love you, and you
know it. Why, then, do you make me suffer so? Ask René what a state I
was in last night. Tell her, Vincy, and tell her she should not trifle
with me. After all,' he cried, burying his face in his hands, 'what does
it matter? If you became the most degraded wretch on earth, I should
still idolise you.'

'These are some of the pretty things I have to hear all day long,' cried
Colette, rolling back on the cushions with a laugh. 'Well, René, tell
him about me too. Tell him how angry I was last night because he went
home without saying a word. And then he didn't write, so I came here.
Yes, I came to _him_, if you please. You savage!' she cried, taking
Larcher by the hair, 'do you think I should trouble to run after you if
I didn't love you?'

Every feature of her face expressed the real nature of the feeling she
entertained for Claude--cruel sensuality, that sensuality which impels a
woman to make a martyr of the man from whose power she cannot free
herself. History tells of queens who loved in this fashion, and who
handed over to the headsman the men whom they hated and yet desired to
possess. René quietly observed:

'I was uneasy about him last night, it is true, and you were very
cruel.'

'That will do!' cried Colette, with a contemptuous laugh. 'I've already
told you that you swallow anything he says. I've given that up myself
long ago. One day he threatened to commit suicide, and when I came here
in my stage clothes, without even waiting to wash my paint off, I found
him--correcting proofs!'

'But that I'm obliged to do,' replied Claude; 'you often have to smile
on the stage yourself when you're really in trouble.'

'What does that prove?' she retorted sharply; 'that we are merely
acting. Only I take you for what you are, and you don't.'

Whilst she rattled on, rating Claude with that savage rancour that a
woman takes no pains to conceal from the man with whom she is on
intimate terms, René's glance, as it wandered round the room, fell upon
a directory containing the addresses of the 'upper ten' and the
hangers-on of Society.

Taking it up he turned over the leaves, and to offer some excuse for his
action, mendaciously remarked, 'Why, your name isn't here, Claude!'

'I should think not,' said Colette; 'I won't let him send it. He sees
quite enough of the swells as it is.'

'I thought you liked the society of that kind of man,' observed Claude.

'What a clever thing to say!' she replied, with a graceful shrug of her
shoulders. 'They're smart, it's true--it's their business to be. They
know how to dress, to play tennis, to ride, and to talk of horses,
whilst you, with all your brains, will never be anything but a cad. How
I wish you were now what you were eight years ago when I first met you
in that restaurant at the corner of the Rue des Saints-Pères! I had
just come from the Conservatoire with my mother and Farguet, my
professor, and we were having some lunch. You looked so good, sitting in
the corner--as though you had come from a monastery, and were having
your first peep at the world. It was that, I think, that made me like
you. Are you coming to the theatre to-night?' she asked René, as he
closed the book and rose to go. He had found what he wanted; Madame
Moraines lived in the Rue Murillo, near the Parc Monceau. 'No? Well,
to-morrow then, and mind you don't get gadding about like this boy! Such
fine ladies as they are, too, your Society women--I know something of
them! Oh, look at his face--won't he storm as soon as you're gone!
You're surely not going to be jealous of women?' she said, lighting a
fresh cigarette. 'Good-bye, René.'

'She is like that before you,' observed Claude, as he let his friend
out; 'but you wouldn't believe how gentle and affectionate she can be
when we are alone!'

'And how about Salvaney?' asked René unthinkingly.

Claude turned pale. 'She says that she merely went to his rooms to look
at some drawings for her next _rôle_: she swears that there was nothing
wrong in it With women, everything is possible--even what is good,' he
added, giving René a hand that was not very steady. 'I can't help it--I
must believe her when she looks at me in her peculiar way.'



CHAPTER VII

THE FACE OF A MADONNA


'Can a man of sense, and a good fellow into the bargain, fall as low as
that?' René asked himself on leaving his unhappy friend. Then, thinking
of Colette's handsome face, he muttered, 'She is very pretty. Heavens!
if one could only get Rosalie's beauty of soul united to this creature's
incomparable grace and elegance!'

But was not such union to be found? The inner or moral beauty, without
which a woman is more bitter than death to the heart of a right-thinking
man, and the outer or physical glamour that enables her to attract and
captivate his grosser nature--was not such complete and supreme harmony
to be found in those creatures whom the accidents of birth and fortune
have surrounded by the attributes of real aristocracy, and whose
personal charms are in keeping with their surroundings? Was not Madame
Moraines an example of this? In any case, that was the poet's first
impression of her, and he took a delight in strengthening this
impression by argument. Yes, he was sure that this woman, whose soothing
image floated through his brain, did indeed possess that double
charm--not only beauty and grace superior to Colette's, but a soul as
unsullied as Rosalie's. The refinement of her manners, the sweetness of
her voice, and the ideality of her conversation gave abundant proofs of
it.

René walked on, his mind occupied with these thoughts, and his eyes
fixed upon a sort of mirage that made him insensible to all around him.
He awoke from this fit of somnambulism on reaching the end of the Pont
des Invalides, and found himself in the middle of the Avenue d'Antin.
His footsteps had mechanically turned towards the quarter where dwelt
the woman to whom his thoughts were so constantly recurring that day. He
smiled as he remembered how often he had made a pilgrimage to this Rue
Murillo when Gustave Flaubert still lived there. René was such an
ardent admirer of the author of the 'Tentation' that it had always been
a great treat to him to gaze up at the house of the eminent and powerful
writer. How long ago those times seemed now, and how rapturous they
would have been had he then known that the woman who was to realise his
fondest ideal would live in that very street! Should he go and see her
to-day? The question became more pressing as time advanced. One sweep
more of the large hand round the dial, and it would be five o'clock--he
could see her. He could see her! The idea of this being a real
possibility took such a hold upon his mind that all the objections his
timidity could devise arose at once. 'No,' he muttered, 'I shall not go;
she would be surprised to see me so soon. She only asked me to come
because she knew all the others had invited me. She did not want to seem
less polite.'

What had seemed in others an empty compliment became a delicate
attention in the case of the woman he was beginning to love--unknown to
himself. The discovery of an additional motive for distinguishing her
from all the women he had met on the previous evening made him feel less
able to resist the desire to be near her. He hailed a cab almost
mechanically, and on reaching home commenced to dress. His sister was
out, and Françoise was busy in the kitchen. Though he had still not the
courage to say to himself outright, 'I am going to the Rue Murillo,' he
paid as much attention to the minute details of his toilet as amorous
youths--at such times a deal more coquettish than women--are wont to do.
It was now no longer upon his timidity that he relied for help to battle
against the ever-increasing desire within him. Every object in the room
recalled memories of Rosalie. With the innate honesty of the young, he
for a long time tried to impress upon himself the duty he owed the poor
girl. 'What would I think of her if I heard that she was accepting the
attentions of a man whom she liked as much as I like Madame Moraines?
But then,' rejoined the tempting voice, 'you are an artist, and require
fresh sensations and experience of the world. And who says that you are
going to call on Madame Moraines only to make love to her?'

He was just in the act of applying his handkerchief to a bottle of
'white rose' that stood on his dressing-table. The penetrating perfume
sent the warm blood coursing through his veins in that irresistible tide
of voluptuous desire that marks the nascent passions of ardent but
continent natures such as his. Since his secret engagement to Rosalie
his delicate scruples had led him to return to a life of absolute
purity. But the barriers of reserve gave way before this subtle perfume,
which awakened memories of all that was least ideal in her rival--the
golden ringlets in her neck, her ruby lips and pearly teeth, her snowy
rounded shoulders and the long bare arms with their tapering wrists. And
this, too, just as he was attempting to attribute his admiration for her
to intellectual motives. Of what avail were ideas of loyalty towards
Rosalie in the face of such visions? It was five o'clock. René left the
house, jumped into another cab, and told the man to drive to the Rue
Murillo. He kept his eyes closed the whole of the way, so intensely
painful was the sensation of suspense. Mingled with this was shame for
his own weakness, apprehension of what was in store for him, deep joy at
the thought that he was about to see that glorious face once more, and,
permeating all, a spice of that mad hope, intoxicating on account of its
very vagueness, that urges the young along fresh paths simply for the
sake of their novelty. The feeling of permanence, so indispensable to a
man of experience, who knows how short life really is, is hateful to the
very young. At twenty-five they are by nature changeable, and
consequently fickle. René, who was even better than a good many others,
had already irreparably betrayed in thoughts the girl who loved him when
his cab set him down at the door of the woman he had seen for one hour
on the previous night. He would rather have stepped upon Rosalie's heart
than not enter that door now. If a last thought of his betrothed did
trouble him at that moment, he no doubt dismissed it with the usual
phrase--'She won't know,' and passed on.

The house in which Madame Moraines lived was one of those buildings to
be found in the fashionable quarters of Paris which, although parcelled
out into flats, have been made by the modern architect to look almost
like private mansions. The house was of noble elevation and stood back
some little distance from the street, the privacy of the courtyard being
insured by some railings that shut it off from the outside world. In the
centre of these railings was the porter's lodge, a sort of Gothic
pavilion, and as René inquired whether Madame Moraines was at home he
could see that the interior of this lodge was better furnished and
looked smarter and brighter than the drawing-room of the Offarels on
reception nights. The strain upon the young man's nerves had now become
so painful that if the veteran soldier who was ending his days in this
haven of rest had answered him in the negative he would almost have
thanked him. But what he heard was, 'Second floor up the steps at the
bottom of the courtyard.'

He crossed the marble threshold and then mounted a wooden staircase
covered with a soft-toned carpet. The air that he breathed on the stairs
was warm, like that of a room. Here and there stood exotic plants, the
gaslight glinting on their green foliage. Chairs were placed at every
turn of the staircase, and twice did René sink down into one. His knees
trembled under him. If until then he had had any doubts respecting the
nature of the feelings he entertained for Madame Moraines, his present
state of excitement should have warned him that those feelings amounted
to something more than simple curiosity. But he went on as if he were in
a dream. He was in that state when he pressed the button at the side of
the door, when he heard the servant coming to open it, and when he gave
him his name; then, before he had recovered his wits, the man had shown
him into a small _salon_, where he found the dangerous creature whose
charms had so enslaved him, though he knew nothing of her except that
she was beautiful. Alas! that this beauty should so often be only a
mask, and a dangerous mask, too, when we give it credit for being more
than it really pretends to be.

Had René in fancy painted any setting for this rare and majestic
beauty, he could have imagined no other than that in which he saw Madame
Moraines for the second time. She was seated at her writing-desk, on
which stood a lighted lamp covered with a lace shade, whilst an ivy
plant trained to creep along a gilded trellis formed a novel and
pleasing screen to the table. The small room was filled with a profusion
of ornaments and trifles indispensable to every modern interior. The
inevitable reclining-chair, with its heap of cushions, the whatnot
crowded with Japanese _netsukés_, the photographs in their frames of
filigree, the three or four _genre_ pictures, the lacquered boxes
standing on the little table covered with its strip of Oriental silk,
the flowers distributed here and there--who in Paris is unacquainted
with this refinement of comfort now so stereotyped as to be quite
commonplace? But all that René knew of Society life he had learnt
either from Balzac and other novelists of fifty years ago or from more
modern authors who had never seen the inside of a drawing-room; the
_ensemble_ of this apartment, beautifully harmonised by the soft tints
of the shaded lamp, was therefore to him like the revelation of a hidden
trait peculiar to the woman who had presided over its arrangement. The
charm of the moment was the more irresistible since the Madonna who
dwelt in this shrine, with its subdued light and its warm air heavy with
the scent of flowers, received him with a smile and a look in her eyes
that at once dispelled all his childish fears.

The men whom Nature has endowed with that inexplicable power of pleasing
women, apart from whatever other qualities they may possess, either
mental or physical, are provided with a kind of antennæ of the soul to
warn them of the impressions they produce. The poet, in spite of his
complete ignorance both of Suzanne's disposition and of the customs of
the world she lived in, felt that he had done right in coming. This
knowledge served to soothe his overstrung nerves, and he gave himself up
entirely to the sweetness that emanated from this creature, the first of
her kind whom he had been permitted to approach. By merely looking at
her he saw that she was not the same woman as on the previous evening.
She had evidently but just come in; some pressing duty--a note, perhaps,
to be written--had only given her time to take off her hat and to
substitute a dainty pair of slippers for her outdoor boots, so that she
was still wearing a walking-dress of some dark material with a high
collar like Colette's. Her hair, René noticed, was of the same colour
as the actress's, and was twisted into a plain coil upon her head. Like
that, she seemed to René more approachable, less superhuman, less
surrounded by that impenetrable atmosphere in which the pomp of dress
and the ceremony of grand receptions envelop a woman of fashion. The few
traits that she possessed in common with the actress only added to her
charms. They enabled René to measure the distance that separated the
two beings, and whilst doing this he heard Suzanne say in that voice
which on the previous evening had proved so irresistibly seductive: 'How
good of you to come, Monsieur Vincy!'

It was nothing--a mere figure of speech. Madame de Sermoises, and Madame
Ethorel, and even the spiteful Madame Hurault would have used the same
words. But, in the mouth of Madame Moraines, and for him to whom they
were addressed, they were expressive of deep and true sympathy, of
unbounded kindness, and of divine indulgence. The phrase had been
accompanied by a gesture of indescribable grace, by a slight look of
surprise in the pale blue eyes, and by a smile more seductive than ever.
Had René not come to the Rue Murillo fully prepared to seize upon the
slightest motives for admiring Suzanne still more, the tribute which she
paid to his vanity by this form of reception would alone have conquered
him. Do not the most celebrated authors and those most weary of
drawing-room sycophancy allow themselves to be captivated by attentions
of this kind? The author of the 'Sigisbée' was not inclined to look at
these things so critically, either. He had come in fear and trembling,
and his reception had shown him he was welcome. Since the morning he had
felt a passionate desire to see Suzanne again; he stood before her, and
she was glad to see him.

There was a merry look in her eyes as her pretty lips now framed the
second sentence she had yet spoken: 'If you accepted all the invitations
which were showered upon you yesterday you must have had a hard day's
work?'

'But you are the only one I have called upon, madame,' he replied
naïvely. He had scarcely uttered the words when a deep blush overspread
his face. The significance of his reply was so apparent, the sentiments
it expressed so sincere, that he felt quite abashed, like a child whose
simple nature has led it to tell what it wished to keep secret. Had he
not been guilty of familiarity that would shock this exquisite creature,
this woman whose delicate perception no shade of meaning could escape,
and upon whose sensitive nature the slightest want of tact would
certainly jar? The pale pink of her cheeks and the silken gloss of her
hair, the blue of her eyes, and the grace of all her person made her
appear to him for the few seconds that followed his exclamation like
some Titania, by the side of whom he was but an obscure and loutish
Bottom. Before her he felt as clumsy in mind as he would have been in
body had he tried to imitate any of her graceful movements--the way, for
instance, in which she closed her handsomely worked blotting-book and
with her fair hands put in order the knick-knacks that covered her
table. An imperceptible smile hovered about her lips as the young man
uttered his simple words. But how could he have seen that smile when his
eyes were modestly cast down at the moment? How could he have guessed
that his reply would be acceptable, although it was precisely the one
that had been expected and even provoked? René was only certain of one
thing--that Madame Moraines was as gentle and as kind as she was
beautiful; instead of appearing offended or drawing back she tried to
conquer the fresh fit of timidity that was beginning to seize him by
replying to his foolish remark.

'Well, sir, I certainly deserve that preference, which would create a
deal of jealousy if it were known, for no one admires your talent as
much as I do. Your poetry contains such true and delicate sentiment. We
women, you know, never judge by reason; our hearts criticise for us, and
it is so seldom that a modern author manages to touch only the right
chords. How can it be otherwise? We are faithful to the old ideals--ah!
yes, I know that is not at all the fashion to-day--it makes one look
almost ridiculous. But we defy ridicule--and then, besides, I have
inherited these ideas from my poor father. It was always his fondest
wish to do something towards raising the literary tone in our unhappy
country. I thought of him as I listened to your verses; how he would
have enjoyed them!'

She stopped, as if to banish these too melancholy recollections. On
hearing the way in which she pronounced her father's name one must needs
have been a monster of distrust not to believe that the incurable wound
caused by the death of that celebrated minister bled afresh every time
she thought of him. René was, nevertheless, a little surprised at the
tenor of her words. He remembered that one of the last things
Sainte-Beuve had written was a philippic against a copyright bill
proposed by Bois-Dauffin, and he had always looked upon the statesman as
one of the sworn enemies of literature, of whom there are thousands in
the political world. He, moreover, had a profound horror of the
conventional idealism to which Madame Moraines had alluded. In poetry,
his favourite author was Théophile Gautier, both on account of his
construction and the precision of his metaphors--in prose, the severe
Flaubert, on account of his wonderfully clear style, and his lack of all
mannerisms.

It pleased him, however, that Suzanne should see in her father a liberal
protector of literature, for it proved the depth of her filial piety. He
was also pleased to find that she cherished an ideal of his art almost
childish in its simplicity. Such a comprehension of beauty, if sincere,
showed real inner purity. If sincere! René would have disdained to
entertain such a doubt in the presence of this ethereal angel with her
dreamy eyes. He stammered out some phrase as vague as that in which
Madame Moraines had expressed her idea, and spoke only of woman's fine
judgment in literature--he, the worshipper not only of Gautier, but of
Baudelaire! Was she quick enough to hear by his tone of voice that she
was on a wrong tack? Or did the profound ignorance in which, like so
many Society women, she was content to dwell--never reading anything
beyond a paper and a few third-rate novels when travelling--make it
impossible for her to keep up a conversation of this order and quote
names in support of her ideas? In any case, she soon dropped this
dangerous subject, and quickly passed from the ideal in art to another
more feminine problem, the ideal in love. In merely uttering the word
'love,' which, in itself, contains so much that is contradictory, she
managed to assume such an air of modesty that René felt as if he had
been taken into her confidence. It was evidently a subject upon which
this woman, so far above all ideas of gallantry, did not care to enter
unless she was in full sympathy with her hearer.

'What pleases me, too, so much in the "Sigisbée,"' she observed, in her
sweet, musical voice, 'is the faith in love portrayed there--the horror
of coquetry, of lies, of all that dishonours the most divine sentiment
of which the human soul is capable. Believe me,' she added, resting her
head upon her hand as if in deep reflection, and regarding René with a
look of such seriousness that it seemed to concentrate all her thoughts;
'believe me, the day that you doubt the reality of love you will cease
to be a poet. But there is a God who watches over genius,' she went on,
with a kind of suppressed emotion. 'That God will not permit the
splendid gifts with which he has endowed you to be sterilised by
scepticism--for you are a believer, I am sure, and a good Catholic?'

'I was,' he replied.

'And now?' she asked, with a look almost of pain on her face.

'I have my days of doubt,' he answered in simple fashion. She was
silent, whilst he sat gazing in speechless admiration at this woman who,
in the vortex of Society life, could still ascend to a world of higher
and nobler ideas. He did not stop to think that there was something
degrading--something like an attempt to gain cheap applause--in parading
before a stranger--and what else was he to her?--the most sacred
feelings of the heart. Although he had in his uncle, the Abbé Taconet,
a perfect example of a true Christian soul, he was not surprised to hear
Madame Moraines combine in one sentence two things so completely foreign
to each other as a belief in God and the gift of writing plays in verse.
He knew nothing except that to hear her voice once more, to see in her
blue eyes that expression of true faith, to gaze upon the curl of her
dainty lips, to feel her presence near him now, always, and for ever, he
would have braved the direst perils. Amid this silence the singing of
the tea urn in a corner of the little _salon_ became more perceptible.
Suzanne passed her hand with its well-polished nails over her eyes;
then, with a smile of apology for having dared, ignorant as she was, to
broach such serious problems to a great mind like his, she suddenly
changed her theme as lightly as some women will offer you a sandwich
after having discussed the immortality of the soul.

'But you have not come here to be preached at,' she cried, 'and I am
forgetting that I am only a worldly woman after all. Will you have a cup
of tea? Then come and help me make it.'

She rose; her step was so lithe and she walked with such an easy grace
that to René, who was already completely bewitched, it seemed as if her
very movements continued in some way the charm of her conversation. He
too had risen, and was now made to take a seat near the little table on
which the tea-kettle was singing merrily. He looked at her as her dainty
hands, so carefully tended, deftly moved amongst the fragile china with
which the tray was laden. She was talking, too, but now her talk ran
upon a score of details of every day life. As she poured the strong
liquor into the cups she told him where she got her tea; then, as she
added the boiling water, she questioned him upon the manner in which he
made his coffee when he wanted to work. She finished by taking a seat
beside him, after having spread a small cloth for the cups, the plates
of toast and cake, the pot of cream, and all the rest. She had set it
out as though it were for a young lady's tea party, and bestowed upon
her visitor those little attentions in which women excel. They know that
the most savage men often love to be petted and made much of, and that
they are so easily won by this false coinage of pretended affection.
Suzanne was now beginning to question the poet, and made him give her an
account of his feelings on the first night of the 'Sigisbée,' thus
completing her work of seduction by compelling him to talk about
himself. All René's timidity had disappeared, and he felt as if he had
known this woman for years, so rapidly had she succeeded in gaining an
ascendency over him in this first visit. It was therefore a cruel
sensation, like awaking from a heavenly dream, when the door opened to
admit a new-comer.

'Oh! what a bother!' exclaimed Suzanne in an undertone. How sweet this
exclamation sounded in the poet's ears, and how he appreciated her
pretty look of annoyance, and the graceful shrug of her shoulders that
accompanied it! He rose to take his leave, but not before Madame
Moraines had introduced him to the unwelcome visitor.

'Monsieur le Baron Desforges--Monsieur Vincy.'

The poet caught a glance of a man of middle height attired in a
smart-fitting frock-coat. The man might have been fifty-five or
forty-five--in reality he was fifty-six--so difficult was it to read his
age from his impenetrable features. His moustache was still fair, and
though the Baron had managed to escape baldness, that plague common to
all Parisians, the colour of his hair, a decided grey, showed that he
made no attempt to hide his years. His face was a little too
full-blooded to be strictly in keeping with the rest of his appearance.
His searching gaze rested upon René with that air of profound
indifference which diplomatists by profession are so prone to affect,
and which seems to say to the man so regarded, 'If I chose to know you,
I should know you--but I do not choose to.' Was this really the meaning
of the look that rested on him, or was René merely put out by the
interruption to his charming _tête-à-tête?_ Be that as it might, the
poet felt an immediate and profound antipathy towards the Baron, who, on
hearing his name, had bowed without uttering a word to show whether he
knew him or not. But what did that matter to René, since Madame
Moraines had still managed to say with a smile as she gave him her hand:
'Thanks for your kind visit. I am so glad that you found me at home.'

Glad! And what word should he use--he who, in an almost maudlin state of
intoxication, felt, as he left the house in which this delightful
creature lived, that before that day and that hour he had never really
loved!



CHAPTER VIII

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PICTURE


'It's Madame Komof's little poet,' said Suzanne, as soon as the door had
closed upon René. The tone in which she replied to the Baron's mute
interrogation indicated the familiar footing upon which Desforges stood
in this house. Then with that girlish smile she could so well
assume--one of those smiles in which the most distrustful men will
always believe, because they have seen their sisters smile like
that--she went on, 'Oh! I forgot--you wouldn't go last night. I looked
so nice--you would have been proud of me. I had my hair done just as you
like it. I expected to see you come in later on. This young man, who is
the author of the play, was introduced to me, and the poor fellow just
called to leave his card. He didn't know my hours, and came straight up.
You have done him a great service in giving him an opportunity to
escape. He had stayed so long that he was afraid to go.'

'You see that I was right in setting my face against last night's
affair,' remarked the Baron. 'Here we have another man of letters
brought out. He has been here, and will call on others. He'll call
again, no doubt, and then he'll be invited here and there. People will
talk before him as they do before you and me, without thinking that on
leaving your house he will, out of sheer vanity, go and retail the
stories he has heard here in some _café_ or newspaper office. And then
the Society dames will be astonished to find themselves figuring in the
columns of some scurrilous sheet or in an up-to-date novel. To invite
writers into the drawing-room is one of the latest and maddest freaks of
so-called Society. We wrong them by robbing them of their time, and they
return the injury by libelling us. I was told the other day that the
daughter of one of this gentleman's colleagues, who helps her papa in
his books, was heard to say: "We never go anywhere without bringing home
at least two pages of useful notes." I myself cannot understand this
mania for talking into phonographs--and such silly, lying phonographs,
too, as they are!'

'Ah!' exclaimed Suzanne, taking the Baron's hand in hers, and looking up
at him with an admiration that was too marked not to be sincere, 'how
fortunate I am in having you to guide me through life! What correct and
clear judgment you have!'

'Oh! merely a little gumption, that's all,' replied Desforges, with a
shake of the head; 'that will prevent one from committing nine-tenths of
the bad actions that are really only follies. All my wisdom of life is
to try and get what I can out of what is left me--and what is left me is
precious little. Do you know that I shall be fifty-six this week,
Suzanne?'

She shook her pretty head, and came closer to him as he stopped in his
march up and down the room. With a look of ingenuousness that might have
been worn either by an accomplished wanton or a big girl asking her
father for a kiss she brought first her cheek with its pretty dimple,
and then the corner of her sweet mouth, under the Baron's lips.

'Come,' she said, 'don't you want any tea? It's a bad sign when you
begin to talk about your age; you must have upset yourself either in the
_Chambre_ or at some Board meeting.'

As she spoke she moved towards the little table, and her eyes fell upon
the cups and plates she and René had used. Did she remember the
Madonna-like _rôle_ she had played in this very spot only a quarter of
an hour ago, and the handsome young man for whose benefit she had
assumed her most bewitching attitudes? And if such a thought really
entered that pretty head, set in its coils of pale gold, did she feel
any shame, any regret, that the poet had gone, or only a kind of secret
joy, such as these bold actresses feel in their moments of greatest
hypocrisy? She made the tea with as much care as she had bestowed on the
process a few minutes before. Desforges had naturally slipped into the
arm-chair just vacated by René, and Suzanne occupied her former seat as
she sat listening to the Baron's talk. This estimable man had an
unfortunate habit of dogmatising at times. He knew the world--that was
his great boast, and he was justified in making it. Only, he attached a
little too much importance to this knowledge.

'It was rather trying in the Chambre to-day, it is true,' he said. 'I
went to hear de Suave hurl his thunderbolts at the Government. He still
believes in Parliamentary speeches and in oratorical triumphs. As for
me, I have, of course, become a sceptic, a grumbler, and a pessimist
since the day when I refused office. They are glad to have me in the
House because my grandfather was a Prefect under one emperor and I a
Councillor of State under another. The name looks well at the bottom of
a poster; but as for hearing me, that's another matter. And they have
such respect for me, too! When I drop in at the club in the afternoon I
find half-a-dozen of my friends, both young and old, engaged in
restoring the monarchy whilst watching the girls pass, if it is summer,
or between two deals at bézique in winter. When I come in you should
see how quickly they change their faces and their conversation, as if I
were discretion itself. I should like to have told them a few
home-truths to-day, just to relieve my feelings, but I went to the Rue
de la Paix instead to get your earrings.'

With these words he took from his pocket a small leather case; it was
quite plain, without the jewellers address, and as he held it out the
fire flashed from the two splendid diamonds it contained, making
Suzanne's eyes sparkle with delight. The case passed from the Baron's
hands into hers, and after gazing at its contents for a moment, she
closed the little box and placed it among some other things on a small
shelf beside her. The manner in which she accepted it would alone have
sufficed to prove how accustomed she was to receiving similar presents.
Then, turning to Desforges, her sweet face all aglow with pleasure, she
exclaimed, 'How good you are to me!'

'Don't thank me. It's pure selfishness,' said the Baron, though
evidently pleased by the impression the earrings had made. 'It is I who
ought to thank you for being good enough to wear these poor stones--I do
so love to see you look nice. Ah!' he added, 'I had forgotten to tell
you--the famous port has arrived; I shall send you half the consignment,
and, by a stroke of good luck, I have managed to get the Watteau you
admired so much for a mere song.'

'I shall have a chance of thanking you to-morrow, I hope, in the Rue du
Mont-Thabor,' she replied, darting a look at him; 'at four o'clock,
isn't it?' she added, dropping her eyes with a blush. If, endowed with
the power of second sight, poor René, who had just returned home in a
fit of idolatry, could have perceived her at that moment without hearing
the conversation he would certainly have seen in her noble face an
expression of most divine modesty. But those downcast lids and the look
she had given him had probably brought other thoughts to the Baron's
mind, for his eyes grew bright, and the blood rushed to his
cheeks--those cheeks which bore such evident traces of good living, a
dangerous vice whose consequences Desforges was always trying to elude.
'I hold the balance,' he used to say, 'between gout and apoplexy.'

Giving his moustache a twirl, he changed the subject, and in a thick
voice, by which his mistress could once more gauge the hold she had upon
the senses of this hoary sinner, asked, 'Who will be in your box
to-night?'

'Only Madame Ethorel.'

'What men?'

'Ethorel cannot come. There will be my husband--and, of course, Crucé.'

'He must make a pretty little thing out of her, only in commission!'
exclaimed Desforges. 'He has just put her on to a picture for which she
has paid twenty thousand francs--I'll wager he got ten thousand out of
it!'

'What a wretch!' cried Suzanne.

'She is such a fool,' remarked the Baron, 'and Crucé is known to be a
_connaisseur._ Besides, if poor Ethorel didn't have him to consult, his
money would go just the same in absolute rubbish. All is for the best in
this best of possible worlds. Well, go on.'

'Little de Brèves and you. Hark!' she exclaimed, stopping to listen.
'Some one is coming up--I have such an ear.' And then, looking at the
Baron in precisely the same way she had looked, at René, she added,
with a pretty look of annoyance, '_Mon Dieu!_ What a bother! Oh! it's no
one,' breaking into a silvery laugh as the servant opened the door;
'it's only my husband. Good afternoon, Paul.'

'That sounds very complimentary,' said the man who had just entered, a
tall, well-built fellow with frank, fearless eyes, and one of those pale
but healthy complexions that reveal great energy. His features had that
stamp of regularity which is only to be met with in Paris in very young
men, for a face of that kind in a man of more than thirty-five indicates
a perfectly clear conscience. The depth of his love was easily measured
by the way in which Moraines looked at his wife, and his sincerity by
the manner in which he shook hands with the Baron.

After a hearty laugh at Suzanne's exclamation, he added, with mock
gravity, 'Am I intruding, madame?'

'Do you want any tea?' asked Suzanne, quietly; 'I must tell you that
it's cold. "Yes, please," or "No, thank you?"'

'No, thank you,' replied Moraines, dropping into an arm-chair, and
preparing his words as if to produce an effect, like some visitor. 'Some
husbands are real idiots, and I blush for the community. Have you heard
about Hacqueville? The story was told me at the club just now. Haven't
heard it, eh? Well, this morning he happens to open a letter addressed
to his wife which leaves no doubt as to the lady's virtue.'

'Poor Mainterne,' cried Suzanne, 'he was so fond of Lucie!'

'That's the beauty of it,' shouted Moraines, in the triumphal accents of
one who is about to astonish his hearers; 'the letter didn't come from
Mainterne, but Laverdin! Lucie had more than two strings to her bow. And
guess to whom Hacqueville takes the letter and looks for advice?'

'To Mainterne,' replied the Baron.

'You've heard the story?'

'No,' rejoined Desforges, 'but it seems so simple. And what did
Mainterne say?'

'You may guess how indignant he was. Lucie has gone to her mother's, and
a duel is announced between Hacqueville and Laverdin, in which the
former insists upon Mainterne being his second. Well, of all the fools
I've seen, I think he is about the biggest. And he hasn't a single
friend to open his eyes.'

'He'll find one,' said the Baron, rising to go. 'The moral of your story
is, never write.'

'Won't you stay and dine with us, Frédéric?' asked Moraines.

'I have an engagement,' replied Desforges, 'but will meet you later at
the Opera. Madame Moraines has been good enough to save me a seat.'

'In your box,' rejoined Paul, with more truth than he thought. The
Baron, who had been a widower for the past ten years, had kept his box
at the Opera, and sublet it for alternate weeks to his excellent friends
the Moraines. The rent, however, was never paid. The husband was as
little aware of his wife's accommodating ways as he was of the
impossibility of living as they did on their income of fifty thousand
francs. The remnant of the wretched fortune left by the late Minister,
Madame Moraines' father, who in fifteen years of office had saved almost
nothing, formed the half of this annual budget. The other half was the
salary which Moraines got as secretary to an insurance company, a place
procured for him by Desforges. In spite of Suzanne's protests, Paul had
not lost the deplorable habit of expatiating upon his wife's clever
husbanding of their united income, which was very small for the world in
which the Moraines lived. Thanks to his simple-minded confidence, he was
the kind of man who, when his friends complained of the increasing
severity of the struggle for life, would say, 'You ought to have a wife
like mine--_she_ knows where to get bargains. She has a maid who is a
perfect treasure, and who can turn out a dress as well as the best
tailor!' 'You make me look ridiculous!' Suzanne would often say; but he
loved her too well to give up praising her, and now, just after
Desforges had left, his first act was to take her hands in his and say,
'How nice it is to have you all to myself for a moment! Kiss me,
Suzanne.'

She gave him her cheek and the corner of her mouth, just as she had done
to Desforges.

'When I am told such terrible stories as that,' he continued, 'it gives
me quite a shock; but I soon recover when I think that I have been lucky
enough to get a little woman like yourself. Ah! Suzanne, how I love
you!'

'And yet I am sure you will scold me,' she replied, escaping from his
embrace. 'The woman you think so clever, and of whom you are so proud,
has been very foolish. Those diamonds,' she went on, holding up the box
brought by Desforges, 'that I told you about--well, I couldn't resist
them, and so I bought them.'

'But it's out of your own savings,' remarked Paul. 'What fine stones! Do
you want me not to scold you? Then let me put them in.'

'You'll never be able to manage it,' she replied, holding up one of her
dainty ears adorned with a plain pink pearl, which Paul slipped out
deftly. Then came the turn of the other ear and the other pearl. He
showed the same dexterity in putting in the diamonds, touching his
beloved as gently with his strong man's hands as any girl could have
done. To look at herself, Suzanne took up a small mirror set in a frame
of antique silver, another present of the Baron's, and smiled. She
looked so pretty at that moment that Paul drew her towards him, and,
holding her in his arms, tried to obtain a kiss from her lips. As a
rule, she never refused him this. Possibly, from some complication in
her nature, she had managed to preserve, in spite of all, a kind of
physical liking for this honest, manly fellow, whom she deceived in such
a cruel fashion. What, then, had suddenly come over her, and made the
usual kiss unbearable? She pushed her husband away almost roughly,
saying, 'Oh! let me alone'--then, as if to mitigate the harshness of her
tone, she added, 'It's ridiculous in an old married couple. Good-bye, I
have hardly time to dress.'

With these words she passed into her bedroom, and so into her
dressing-room. Of all the apartments in her home, this was the one in
which the profound materialism that formed the basis of this woman's
nature was most revealed. Her maid, Céline, a tall, dark girl with
impenetrable eyes, commenced to undress her in this shrine of beauty, as
gorgeously upholstered as that of any royal courtesan, and anyone who
had seen Suzanne at that moment would have understood that she was ready
to do anything for the luxury of living in this atmosphere of supreme
refinement.

This woman, so delicately fashioned that she seemed almost fragile, was
one of those creatures who combine full hips with a slender waist, neat
ankles with a well-turned leg, dainty wrists with rounded arms, small
features with a full figure, and whose dresses, by hiding all such
material charms, clothe them, as it were, with spirituality. She cast a
glance at the long mirror set in the centre of her wardrobe, where,
packed away in sweet-smelling sachets, lay piles of embroidered linen;
seeing how well she looked she smiled as there once more flashed across
her brain the same idea that but a few moments ago had dragged her from
her husband's arms. This idea was evidently not one of those which it
pleased her to entertain, for she shook her head, and a few minutes
later, having thrown over her bare neck and shoulders a dressing-jacket
of pale blue _foulard_ silk and put her naked feet into a pair of soft
swans-down slippers, she gave herself up to the hands of her maid, who
began to dress the long, shining hair. The cool water in which she had
bathed her face had completely restored her self-possession, and in the
mirror before her she saw all the details of this apartment that she had
turned into the chapel of her one religion--her beauty.

All was reflected there--the soft-toned carpet, the bath of English
porcelain, the wide marble washhand-stand with its silver fittings and
its host of small toilet necessaries. Did the sight of all these things
remind her of the divers conditions that secured her this happy
existence? In any case, it was of her husband she was thinking when she
exclaimed, 'The dear, good fellow!' The sparkling diamonds that she had
kept in her ears recalled thoughts of Desforges, and following close
upon the other came the mental exclamation, 'Dear, kind friend!' These
two contradictory impressions became as easily reconciled in the head
adorned with those long silken tresses as the two facts were reconciled
in life. Women excel in these moral mosaics, which appear less monstrous
when the process of their construction has been carefully watched. This
fair Parisian of thirty was certainly as thoroughly corrupted as it is
possible to be; but, to do her justice, it must be said at once that she
was unaware of it, so passive had she been with regard to the
circumstances that had gradually reduced her to this state of
unconscious immorality.

When Suzanne had allowed herself to be married to Paul Moraines two
years before the war of 1870 she had felt neither repugnance nor
enthusiasm. The matter had been arranged by the two families; old
Moraines, a senator ever since the establishment of the Second Empire,
belonged to the same set as old Bois-Dauffin, and Paul, who was then an
officer of the Council of State, a good dancer and a charming ladies'
man, seemed made for her, as she did for him. For the first two years
they formed what is called in women's parlance 'a sweet couple;' it was
one round of balls, suppers, and theatre parties, with rural festivities
in summer and hunting parties in autumn, all of which both of them
enjoyed to the full. Paul himself well defined the kind of relations
that bound him to his wife amidst these continual pleasures. 'You are as
bewitching as a mistress,' he would say to her as he kissed her in the
brougham that took them home at one in the morning.

The revolution of the Fourth of September put an end to this fairy-like
existence. The families on both sides had lived on large salaries that
were suddenly stopped, but this stoppage had no immediate effect upon
the gratification of their expensive tastes. Until his death, which
occurred in 1873, Bois-Dauffin was convinced of the speedy restoration
of a _régime_ that had been so strong, so well supported, and so
popular. The ex-senator, who survived his friend only a few months,
shared his sanguine dreams. Paul had, of course, lost his place at the
Council of State. He possessed, to an even greater extent than his
father and his father-in-law, that blind faith in the success of the
cause which will always remain an original trait of the Imperialist
party. Suzanne, who had no faith of any kind, commenced to be troubled
in 1873 by a very clear vision of the ruin towards which she and her
husband were steering by living, as they did, on their capital. This was
precisely the moment when Frédéric Desforges commenced to pay her
court.

This man, who was then not yet fifty, had remained the most brilliant
representative of the generation that had come in with the Second
Empire, and which had for its chief the clear-sighted and seductive Duc
de Morny. In Suzanne's eyes the Baron's highest recommendation lay in
the romantic tales of gallantry that were told of him in the
drawing-room, and soon this prestige was supplemented by his
indisputable superiority in the knowledge and management of Parisian
Society. Having been left a childless widower after a brief union, with
almost nothing to do, for his parliamentary duties did not trouble him
much, and with an income of four hundred thousand francs a year,
exclusive of his mansion in the Cours-la-Reine, his estate in Anjou and
his _chalet_ at Deauville, the former favourite of the famous Duke had
the rare courage to allow himself to grow old--just as his leader had
had the courage to die. He wished to form one last attachment that would
bear cultivating until his sixtieth year, and procure him not only an
agreeable and accommodating mistress, but a pleasant circle in which to
spend his evenings. He had taken in the position of Madame Moraines at a
glance, and decided that this was exactly the kind of woman he
wanted--extremely pretty and graceful, guaranteed against all
probability of maternity by six years of childless married life, and
possessing a presentable husband, who would never become a blackmailer.
The crafty Baron summed up all these advantages, and by gradually
worming his way into Suzanne's confidence, by proving his devotion in
getting Moraines his secretaryship, by making her accept presents upon
presents, and by showing that exquisite tact of a man who only asks to
be tolerated, he at last got her to consent to his wishes. All this,
too, was done so slowly and so imperceptibly, and the _liaison_, when
once established, became so simple and so closely bound up with her
daily life, that the criminality of her relations with Desforges
scarcely ever seemed to strike Suzanne.

What wrong was she doing Moraines, after all? Was she not his wife, and
really attached to him? As for the Baron, it is true that he provided a
very fair share of the luxuries in which she indulged. But what of that?
May not a woman receive presents? If he paid a bill here, and a bill
there, did that hurt anyone? She was his mistress, but their
relationship was clothed in an air of respectability that made it seem
almost like a legitimate union. She had become so accustomed to this
compromise with her conscience that she considered herself, if not quite
an honest woman, at least vastly superior in virtue to a number of her
friends with whose various intrigues she was acquainted. If her
conscience reproached her at all, it was for having deceived Desforges,
two years after the beginning of their intimacy, with a swell clubman,
whom she had carried off from one of her friends during the racing
season at Deauville. This individual had, however, almost compromised
her so fatally, and she had been so quick to detect in him the
self-conceit of a mere flirt, that she had been only too glad to sever
the connection at once. Thereupon she had sworn to restrict herself to
the peaceful delights of her three-cornered arrangement--to Paul's
gentlemanly ways and the Baron's Epicurean gallantry. And so carefully
had she kept her resolve, and with such attention to outward appearance,
that her good name was as safe as it could be in the enviable position
to which her beauty raised her. She had rivals who were too well
accustomed to drawing up accounts not to know that the Moraines were
living at the rate of eighty thousand francs a year; 'and we knew them
when they were almost beggars,' added these kind people. 'Scandal!'
cried all the Baron's friends in chorus, and he had a way of making
friends everywhere. 'Scandal!' cried the simple-minded people who are
shocked by the tales of infamy that go the round of the drawing-rooms
every night. 'Scandal!' added the wiseacres, who know that the best
thing to do in Paris is to pretend to believe nothing, and to take
people at their own value.

Recollections of the innumerable services that Desforges had rendered
her were no doubt running through Suzanne's mind as, seated before her
toilet table, she exclaimed, 'The dear, kind friend!' Why, then, did the
Baron's face, intelligent but worn, suddenly make way for another and a
younger face, adorned with an ideal beard and lit up by a pair of dark
blue eyes that reflected all the ardour of a virgin and enthusiastic
soul? Why, whilst Céline's nimble fingers were busy with laces and
hooks, would an inner voice continually murmur the sweet music of these
four syllables--René Vincy? What secret temptation was she resisting
when she whispered again and again the word, 'Impossible!'

She had seen the poet twice. That she, the mistress, almost the pupil,
of the elegant Desforges; she, the very pattern of the Society belle,
who had sold herself for all this fine perfumed linen in which she
wrapped her beauty--for these soft, silken skirts which her maid was now
fastening about her waist and for the countless luxuries that a
licentious woman of fashion delights in, that she could so forget
herself as to be captivated by the eyes and words of a chance poetaster,
seen to-day and forgotten to-morrow, was well nigh impossible. She had
said 'Impossible!' and yet here she was thinking of him again. How
strange it was that ever since meeting René she had been unable to rid
herself of the alluring hope of winning him! If anyone had used that
old-fashioned phrase, 'Love at first sight,' in her hearing, she would
have shrugged those pretty shoulders whose graceful contours were now
revealed by her low-necked Opera gown and whose whiteness was enhanced
by the single string of pearls she wore; and yet, what other words could
describe the sudden and ardent feelings that her meeting with the poet
had inspired--feelings that were hourly growing more intense?

The fact of the matter was that for some months past Suzanne had been
somewhat bored between her husband--'the dear, good fellow'--and her
'dear, kind friend,' the Baron. The life of pleasure and of luxury for
which she had made so many sacrifices seemed to her empty and dull. This
she called 'being too happy.' 'I ought to have a little trouble,' she
would say, with a laugh. Incessant indulgence had destroyed her appetite
for enjoyment and made her a prey to the moral and physical weariness
that frequently causes _demi-mondaines_ to suddenly throw up a position
which it has cost them much labour to attain. They require fresh
sensations, and, above all, that of love. They will commit any folly
when once they have met the man who is able to make them feel something
beyond their former empty delights--one whom their less elegant sisters
would expressively term 'their sort.'

For Madame Moraines, who had just attained her thirtieth year, and who,
satiated as she was with every kind of luxury, with no ambition to
realise, and without the least respect for the men she met in her set,
the apparition of a new being like René, so entirely different to the
usual drawing-room 'swell,' might and did become an event in its way. It
was curiosity that led her to take a seat next to him at Madame Komof's
supper-table, and her feminine tact had at once told her in what _rôle_
she would be most seductive in his eyes. His conversation had delighted
her, but on her return home she had gone to sleep after uttering the
'Impossible!' which is used as a charm against all complaints of this
kind by Society belles, a class more bound down in their narrow paths of
pleasure than any busy housewife by her daily duties. Then René had
called, and the impression he had already made on her was intensified a
hundred-fold. She was pleased with all she saw or imagined in the young
man--his good looks, his true-heartedness, his awkwardness, and his
timidity. It was in vain that she kept repeating 'Impossible!' as she
put the finishing touch to her dress by fastening one or two diamond
pins in her bodice--in spite of that word she was already capitulating.
She turned the idea over again and again, and all kinds of plans for
bringing the adventure to a successful issue passed through her
practical mind. 'Desforges is very sharp,' she reflected, adding, as she
remembered the Baron's tirade against literary men, 'and he has already
smelt a rat.' This tirade had at first afforded her amusement, but now
it annoyed her, and made her feel a desire to act in a manner entirely
opposed to her excellent friend's wishes. She was so completely absorbed
in thought that it attracted her maid's attention, and caused that young
person to say to the footman, 'There's something wrong with Madame. Can
Monsieur have found out anything?'

This unreasonable and irresistible abstraction lasted all through
dinner, then on the way to the theatre, and even during the performance,
until Madame Ethorel suddenly remarked, 'Isn't that Monsieur Vincy
looking at us over there--in the stalls near the door on the right?'

'Madame Komof's poet?' asked Suzanne indifferently. During René's visit
she had mentioned that she was going to the Opera that night. She
remembered it now as she put up her own glasses, mounted in chased
silver--another present from the Baron. She saw René, and as he timidly
turned away his glance a sudden thrill ran through her. Had Desforges,
from his place at the back of the box, overheard Madame Ethorel's
remark? No, she thought not; he was in deep conversation with Crucé.

'He is talking shop,' she said to herself as she listened, 'and has
heard nothing. What is going on in me?'

It was the first time for many a day that the music touched some chord
of feeling within her. She spent the evening between the happiness that
René's presence caused her and the mortal dread that he might visit her
in her box. The shame of having been remarked no doubt paralysed the
poet, for he dared not even look towards the place where Suzanne sat,
and when she went down to her carriage his face was not to be seen in
the double row of men who lined the staircase. There was therefore
nothing to prevent her from giving herself up to the idea that had
obtained such a hold upon her, and as she laid her fair head upon the
lace-covered pillow she had got so far as to say: 'Provided he doesn't
ask his friend Larcher for information about me!'



CHAPTER IX

AN ACTRESS IN REAL LIFE


Every morning a little before nine Paul Moraines entered his wife's
room. By that time she had had her bath and was employed in attending to
little trifles. Her small white feet, showing their blue veins, played
in and out of her slippers, her dressing gown of soft clinging material
was gathered round her slim waist by a silken cord, and her hair hung
down in a thick golden plait. The bedroom, in which the big bedstead
took up a good deal of space, was aired and perfumed, and to Paul the
three-quarters of an hour he spent in taking his morning cup of tea with
Suzanne at a little table near the window was the happiest part of the
day. He had to be at his office by ten, and was too busy to come home
for lunch. He was the kind of man who sits down in a first-class
restaurant about half-past twelve, orders the _plat du jour_, a small
bottle of wine, and a cup of coffee, and goes away after having spent
the smallest sum possible. It pleased him to rival his wife's economy in
this fashion. But his morning cup of tea was the reward he looked
forward to during the six or seven hours he devoted to the Company's
work.

'There are some days,' he would say in his simple way, 'when I should
see nothing of you if it were not for this thrice blessed cup of tea!'
It was he who served her; he buttered her toast with infinite care and
watched her dainty teeth attack the crisp morsels. He was uneasy when,
as on the morning after she had seen René at the Opera, her eyes were
not quite so bright as usual and a look of fatigue showed that she had
not had sufficient sleep. All night had she been tormented by thoughts
of the young poet, and by the stir he had made amongst the small bundle
of remnants she called her feelings. Her mind being before all else
clear and precise--the mind of a business man at the service of a pretty
woman's whims--she had reviewed the means at her disposal for gratifying
her passionate caprice. The first condition was that she should see
René again, and see him often; now, that was impossible at her own
house, as was proved by her husband's words that very morning. After a
few tender inquiries concerning her health, he asked, Did you have many
visitors yesterday?'

'None at all,' she replied; and it being her custom never to tell an
unnecessary fib, she added, 'only Desforges and that young fellow who
wrote the play performed at Madame Komof's the other night.'

'René Vincy,' remarked Moraines. 'I'm sorry I missed him--I like his
work very much. What is he like? Is he presentable?'

'He's nothing much,' answered Suzanne; 'quite insignificant.'

'Did Desforges see him?'

'Yes--why?'

'I'll ask the Baron about him. I dare say he took his measure at the
first glance. He has a rare knowledge of men.'

'That's just like him,' said Suzanne, when Moraines was gone, after
having devoured her with kisses; 'he tells the Baron everything.' She
foresaw that the first person to tell Desforges of René's frequent
visits to the Rue Murillo, if she got the poet to come, would be Paul
himself. 'He is really too silly,' she went on, getting out of patience
with him for his absolute confidence in the Baron, which she had herself
been most instrumental in inspiring. But now she was beginning to fret
under the first feelings of restraint.

Thoughts of René ran through her head all the morning, which was spent
in looking over accounts and in receiving the visit of Madame Leroux,
her manicure, a person of ripe age, extremely devout, with a
sanctimonious and discreet air, who waited on the most aristocratic
hands and feet in Paris. As a rule Suzanne, who, with perfect justice,
looked upon inferiors as the principal source of all Society scandal,
had a long talk with Madame Leroux, partly to procure her good-will,
partly to hear a good many details concerning those whom the artiste
deigned to honour with her services. Madame Leroux was therefore never
tired of singing the praises of that charming Madame Moraines, 'so
unaffected and so good. She absolutely worships her husband.' But that
day none of the manicure's flattery could draw a single word from her
fair client. The desire that had seized hold of the latter grew stronger
and stronger, whilst the obstacles that stood in the way of its
gratification assumed a clearer and more uncompromising shape. To gain a
man's love requires time and opportunities of meeting. René did not go
into Society, and if he had done so it would have been worse still, for
other women would have taken him from her. Here, in her home in the Rue
Murillo, she could have wormed her way into his virgin heart so
easily--and only the Baron's watchfulness prevented her.

It was the first time for some years that she felt herself fettered, and
a fit of anger against the man to whom she owed all she had came over
her. Filled with such thoughts as these she lunched as usual alone, and
in very frugal fashion. Even with the generous assistance of her
benefactor she could only make both ends meet by practising economy in
things that would not be noticed, such as the table. In her solitude she
felt so miserable and at the same time so utterly powerless that, as she
rose, the cry almost escaped her, 'What is the use of it, after all?'

What was the use of it all, indeed? She was a slave. Not only could she
not see René as she wished in her own house, but that very afternoon,
in spite of the new sentiments that were springing up within her, she
had to keep an appointment with Desforges.

'What is the use of it?' she repeated, as she got herself ready to go
out, putting on a pair of tiny shoes instead of boots, a plain dress
that fastened in front, a black bonnet, and in her pocket a thick veil.
She had ordered her carriage for two o'clock--a brougham and pair that
she hired by the month for the afternoon and evening. On getting into it
she was so crushed by the weight of her slavery that she could have
cried. What, then, were her feelings when, on turning the corner of the
street, she saw René standing there, evidently waiting to see her pass?

Their eyes met. He took his hat off with a blush, and she too could not
help blushing in the corner of her carriage, so great was the
pleasurable revulsion of feeling caused by this unexpected meeting, and
especially by the idea that he must be in love with her. She, the
creature of calculation and deceit, fell into one of those profound
reveries in which women, when in love, anticipate all the delights to
which the sentiment they experience and inspire can give birth. At such
a moment they will give themselves up in thoughts to the man they did
not know a week ago. If they dared, they would give themselves up too,
there and then, though this would not hinder them from persuading the
man who conquered them at the first glance that their subjugation was a
work of time and degrees. In this they are right, for man's stupid
vanity is gratified by the difficulties of the conquest, and few have
sense enough to understand the divine quality of love that is
spontaneous, natural, and irresistible.

Whilst the poet walked off, saying to himself, 'I am undone--she will
never forgive me for such folly,' Suzanne was in one of those transports
of delight before which prudence itself gives way, and, forgetting her
fears of the morning, she now saw her way to carrying out one of those
simple plans such as only the eminently realistic mind of a woman can
concoct. She had set herself the task of deceiving a very sharp man, and
one who was well acquainted with her disposition. The best thing to do,
therefore, was to act in a manner exactly contrary to what that man
would expect and foresee. Matters must be precipitated; René must be
brought to her feet after two or three visits, and she must surrender
before he had had time to woo her; Desforges would never suspect her of
such an escapade--he who knew her to be so circumspect, so cautious, and
so clever. But what if the poet despised her for her too easy surrender?
She shook her pretty head incredulously as this objection occurred to
her. That was a matter of tact and of woman's wit, and there she was
sure of her ground!

Her joy at having roughly worked out this problem and the joy of
deceiving the subtle Baron became so strangely mixed that she now looked
forward to her appointment not only without regret, but with malicious
delight. On reaching the colonnades in the Rue de Rivoli she got out as
usual and sent the carriage home. The house in which the Baron had taken
rooms for his meetings with Suzanne possessed two entrances, an
advantage so uncommon in Paris that buildings favoured in that way are
not only well-known, but much sought after by transgressors of the
Seventh Commandment. Frédéric was too intimately acquainted with this
phase of Parisian life to have fallen into the error of going to a place
whose reputation was already made. The house he had somewhat
accidentally hit upon must have escaped discovery by reason of its
sedate and dismal-looking frontage in the Rue du Mont-Thabor, where he
had taken the first floor, consisting of an ante-room and three other
apartments. The rooms were kept in order by his valet, a man on whom he
could thoroughly rely, thanks to the liberal wages he gave him.
Considerable regard had been paid to what must be called the comfort of
pleasure in furnishing this small suite, where the hangings and curtains
deadened the noises from without, where soft skins were thrown down here
and there for naked feet, where the countless mirrors reminded one of
similar but less decorous places, and where the low arm-chairs and
couches invited those long, familiar talks in which lovers delight. In a
word, the minute care bestowed upon this interior would alone have
betrayed the extent of the Baron's sensualism.

Suzanne had so often come to this house during the past few years, she
had so often tied on her thick veil in the doorway in the Rue de Rivoli,
so often hastened past the porter's lodge that she had come to perform
almost mechanically these rites of adultery which procure novices such
exquisite emotions. To-day, as she mounted the stairs, she could not
help thinking how differently she would feel if she were going to meet
René Vincy instead of the Baron in this quiet retreat She knew so well
exactly what would happen. Desforges would be there and have everything
prepared for her reception, from the flowers in the vases to the bread
and butter for tea; then, at a given moment, she would go into the
dressing-room and come out in a loose lace gown, her hair hanging about
her shoulders and her little feet encased in slippers similar to those
she wore in the morning. She took not the least pleasure in all this,
but the Baron had such a charming way of showing his gratitude for the
favours she granted him and displayed so much wit and affection during
their long talks together that it was frequently he who had to remind
his mistress that it was time to go.

To-day the state of her mind and feelings prompted Suzanne herself to
say, as soon as she had entered the room, 'I am very sorry, Frédéric
dear, but I shall have to leave you rather early.'

'Has it put you out to come?' asked the Baron as he helped her off with
her cloak. 'Why didn't you send me a line to countermand our
appointment?'

'He is really too kind,' thought Suzanne, feeling some slight remorse
for her unnecessary fib. Taking her hat off before the glass the flash
of her diamond earrings caught her eye, and suddenly reminded her of all
that she owed this man, who asked for so little in return.

False situations sometimes give rise to conscientious paradoxes, and it
was a feeling of honesty that impelled this woman to come and seat
herself on the arm of the Baron's easy chair and to sigh, 'I should have
been terribly disappointed myself. Will you never believe that I am
really glad to come here?--I owe him that at least,' she thought, and in
further obedience to her strange qualms of conscience she contrived to
be more than usually fascinating and docile during the whole of their
_tête-à-tête._

At the end of a couple of hours, whilst she was lying back half buried
in one of the great arm-chairs, enjoying a caviar sandwich and a
thimbleful of fine old sherry, Desforges, who was watching her dainty
movements as she ate, could not help exclaiming: 'Ah! Suzon! At my age,
too! What would Noirot say?'

This Noirot who had so suddenly troubled the Baron's mind was a doctor
who treated him to a course of massage every morning and watched over
his general health. Everything in the life of this systematic voluptuary
was carefully planned out, from the amount of exercise to be taken each
day to the attendance he should receive when in his dotage. He had taken
into his house a poor and pious female relative, to whose good works he
annually subscribed a pretty round sum. When complimented on his
generosity, he would reply in his own jocular and cynical way: 'What can
I do? I must have some one to look after me in my old age. My cousin
will be my nurse, and make the best one in Paris.'

Generally these outbursts of unblushing egotism amused Suzanne. She saw
in them a conception of life whose pronounced materialism was far from
displeasing her. But to-day she looked a little more closely at the
Baron as he uttered his doctor's name, and sitting there with the
lamp-light full upon his wrinkled face, his drooping moustache and his
swollen eyelids, he looked so broken down and so fully his age that the
hideousness of her own life suddenly burst upon her. It is a horrible
thing for a young and beautiful woman to endure the caresses of a man
she does not love, even when that man is young, full of passion and
ardour. But when he is bordering on old age, when he pays for the right
to pollute this fair woman whose love he cannot win, then it is
prostitution so terrible that disgust gives way to sorrow. For the first
time, perhaps, Desforges looked old in Suzanne's eyes, and by an
irresistible impulse of her whole soul she called to mind, as a
contrast, the fresh lips and fair young face of the man whose image had
haunted her for the past two days. She felt how foolishly she had
behaved in hesitating for an instant, and, being a person of
determination, she commenced to act at once.

She was now dressed, and having put on her bonnet and buttoned her
gloves, she said to Desforges before tying on her veil, 'When are you
coming to lunch with me? Once upon a time you often used to come without
being asked--it was so nice of you.'

'To-morrow I can't,' he replied, 'nor the next day either, but the day
after that----'

'Tuesday, then? That's an understood thing. And to-night I shall see you
at Madame de Sermoises', sha'n't I?'

'Charming woman!' thought the Baron, as he was left alone. 'She might
have so many adventures, and her only thought is of pleasing me.'

'The day after to-morrow, then, I am sure of being alone,' said Suzanne
to herself as she swept along the pavement of the Rue du Mont-Thabor,
casting cautious glances to the right and left, but with such art that
her eyes scarcely seemed to move. 'But what excuse can I give
René'--she already called him by that name in her thoughts--'to make
him come? I know--I'll ask him to write a few lines on a copy of the
"Sigisbée" that I'm going to send to a friend.'

She had to pass a bookseller's in the Rue Castiglione, and went in to
buy the book, being in that state of mind when the execution of an idea
follows almost automatically upon its conception. 'I hope he'll not do
anything foolish before then. And I hope he won't hear anything about me
that will dampen his ardour.' Claude Larcher once more came into her
mind. 'Yes--he's certainly dangerous,' she thought, and saw at once the
means of avoiding the danger provided René came to her before speaking
to Claude. Then it suddenly struck her that she did not know the poet's
address, but that difficulty could be got over by calling on Madame
Komof. 'It is past six now, and she is sure to be at home.' Hailing a
cab, she drove to the Rue du Bel-Respiro, and was lucky enough to find
the Comtesse alone, from whom it was easy to obtain the information she
wanted.

The worthy lady, whose _soirée_ had been a success, was loud in her
praise of the poet. '_Idéal!_' she exclaimed, with one of her wild
gesticulations, 'charming! And so modest! He will be your modern
Poushkin.'

'Do you know where he lives?' inquired Suzanne. 'He called on me and
only left his name.'

No sooner had her note been written and sent than she became a prey to
that uncertainty upon which newborn love thrives so well that in those
days when the strange but not unintellectual vice of seduction was still
fashionable the professors of the art used to dwell upon the importance
of invoking the aid of this feverish condition. Would René come or not?
If he came, what would he look like?

She would be able to see at once by his face if anything had happened to
impair the impression she was sure she had made upon him the other day.
The hour that she had fixed in her note at length arrived, and when the
poet was announced Suzanne's heart beat faster than did that of her
simple lover. She looked at him and read to the bottom of his soul. Yes,
she was still to him the Madonna she had pretended to be from the first
with that facility of metamorphosis peculiar to these Protei in
petticoats. In his soft dark blue eyes she perceived both joy and
fear--joy at seeing her again so soon, and in her own home; fear at
appearing before this angel of purity after having dared to look for her
at the Opera and to wait for her at the corner of the street.

This time the charming actress had devised a new background for her
beauty. She was seated near the window, and with some bundles of silk
thread and the aid of a few pins was working a pattern upon a drum of
green cloth. Behind her the lace curtains were drawn back in their
bands, and the visitor's gaze could rest upon the landscape of the Parc
Monceau, upon the pale blue sky, the bare trees, the yellow grass, and
the dark ivy that grew about the ruins. A February sun lit up this
wintry prospect, and its rays fell caressingly upon Suzanne's hair with
its soft golden sheen. A white dress, made in fanciful style, with long,
wide sleeves and trimmings of violets, gave her the appearance of a lady
of the Middle Ages. Her feet, encased in silk stockings of the same
shade as the trimming of her dress, were modestly crossed upon a low
footstool. Had she been told that less than forty-eight hours ago these
same modest feet had wandered across the carpets of what was almost a
house of ill-fame, that this hair had been handled by an aged lover who
paid her, that she was in fact kept by Desforges, she would probably
have denied the statement in perfect sincerity, so closely did her
desire to please René make her identify herself with the _rôle_ she
was playing.

The poet could not be aware of this. He had spent three days in one
continual state of exaltation, feeling his desire increase hourly, and
very glad to feel it. The beginning of a passion is as alluring at
twenty-five as at thirty-five it is terrifying. Suzanne's note had given
him unmistakable proofs that the trifling imprudences which he himself
looked upon as a crime had not given great displeasure, but in matters
that concern us very closely we always find fresh motives for doubt, and
this grown-up child had been silly enough to fear the reception that
awaited him. How delighted he was, therefore, to be met with the simple
familiarity, the beaming eyes, and the sweet smile of this woman whom,
seated in the foreground of the wintry landscape, he immediately
compared to those saints whom the early masters set in the midst of
green fields and placid lakes. But this was a saint whose gown had been
made by the first tailor in Paris, a saint from whom there emanated that
odour of heliotrope which had already played such havoc with the poet's
senses, and through the opening of whose long, wide sleeves two golden
bands were seen clasping an arm as white as snow.

What René had so much feared did not take place. Madame Moraines did
not make the slightest allusion either to the Opera or to their meeting
at the corner of the street. For some time she continued her work,
having quite naturally brought the conversation round from Madame
Komof's enthusiasm to the poet's plans for the future. She, who could
not have distinguished Béranger from Victor Hugo, or Voltaire from
Lamartine, spoke like one entirely devoted to literature. She had met
Théophile Gautier two or three times under the Empire, and though she
had scarcely looked at him on account of his complete lack of British
elegance, this did not prevent her from giving the enthusiastic René a
minute description of the great writer. He had interested her to such a
degree--she thought she must still have some of his letters.

'I must find them for you,' she said. Then, reminded by this lie, she
added, 'I am sorry to have put you to all this inconvenience for your
autograph, but my friend leaves for Russia to-morrow.'

'What shall I write?' asked René.

'Whatever you please,' she said, rising to get the book, and placing it
on her ivy-mantled desk. She got everything ready for him to make his
task easier--opened the ink-pot with its silver top and put a fresh pen
in the ivory and gold penholder; in doing this she contrived to touch
René lightly in passing to and fro, enveloping him with her sweet
perfume and causing his hand to tremble as he copied on the fly-sheet of
the book the two verses which kind Madame Ethorel had called a sonnet:


The phantom of a day long dead
Appeared, with hand stretched out to show
A fair white rose whose bloom was fled,
And in my ear it whispered low,
'Where is thy heart of long ago?
Where is that hope thy fond heart chose
So like this rose in days of yore?
Dear was the hope and dear the rose:
How sweet their perfume heretofore
When once they bloomed! They bloom no more.


When he had finished writing Madame Moraines took the book from his
hands, and, standing behind him, recited the verses in a low, almost
inaudible, voice, as if to herself. She added no word of praise or
criticism, but, after having read out the lines with a sigh, remained
standing there as though their music lent an infinitely tender tone to
her reverie.

René gazed at her almost wild with emotion. How could he have resisted
such sweet and supreme flattery as that which she had just employed to
captivate him, appealing, as it did, both to his vanity as an artist and
to his highest conceptions of beauty? And, indeed, she had managed to
fall into a splendid _pose_ whilst reading. She knew how charming she
looked with half-averted face and eyes cast down. But suddenly she
turned these glorious eyes, now eloquent with the feelings inspired by
his lines, full upon the poet, and almost asked pardon for her temporary
abstraction.

She seemed to step out of her poetic visions as though she were afraid
of profaning them, and with a curiosity this time as real as her
artificial emotion was apparent, she said: 'I am sure you did not write
these lines for your play?'

'That is true,' replied René, with another blush. He had scruples about
lying to this woman, even to please her. But how could he tell her the
sad and wretched story which, with a poet's touch, he had transformed
into a romantic idyll?

'Ah! you men!' she went on, without waiting for further reply--'how full
your life is, and how free! But you must not think I am complaining. We
Christian wives know our duty, and a beautiful one it is--obedience.'
After a moment's silence she added: 'Alas! we do not always choose our
master,' and then, in a tone of mingled resignation and pride that both
suggested and forbade further speculation, 'I am sorry I have not been
able to introduce you to Monsieur Moraines yet I hope you will like him.
He is not much interested in art, but he is a very clever man in
business. Unfortunately we live in an age when one must be born in
Israel to get on well.'

As may be imagined, there was not the slightest anti-Semitic feeling in
Suzanne, who was always very glad to receive invitations to dine at two
or three Jewish houses of princely hospitality, but it had struck her
that these words would intensify the halo of piety with which she had
endeavoured to invest herself in the poet's eyes. 'You will find my
husband somewhat reserved at first,' she continued; 'it was my ambition
to make my drawing-room a rendez-vous of writers and artists, but you
know that business men are a little jealous of you all, and then
Monsieur Moraines doesn't care for society much. He was not at Madame
Komof's the other night; he likes to move just in a small circle, and
have only well-known faces about him.'

She spoke with an air of constraint, as if she meant to say, 'You must
excuse me if I cannot ask you to come and see me here as I should like.'
This constrained air also meant that this lovely woman must have been
sacrificed (not that she was ever heard to complain) to cold social
considerations which take no account whatever of sentiment. Already, in
René's imagination, Paul Moraines, that amiable and jovial fellow, had
become a crotchety and bad-tempered husband, to whom this creature of a
superior race was bound by the terrible chains of duty. In addition to
the passion that animated him, he felt for her that pity which the less
a woman deserves it the more she loves to inspire.

Tempering the pointedness of his reply by the generality in which he
clothed it, he made bold to say, 'I wish I could tell you how often,
when I have wandered as far as the Champs-Elysées, I have longed to
know the secret of the sadness I imagined I saw on certain faces. It has
always seemed to me that the troubles of the wealthy are the worst, and
that mental anguish in the midst of material well-being is most to be
pitied.'

She looked at him as if his words surprised her. In her eyes was that
look of rapt and involuntary astonishment worn by a woman when she
suddenly discovers in a man a shade of sentimentalism which she believed
to be restricted to her own sex.

'I think we shall soon become friends,' she said, 'for there is much in
our hearts that is similar. Are you like me? I believe in sympathy and
antipathy by sheer instinct, and I think I can also feel when people
don't like me. Now--perhaps I am wrong in telling you this, but I speak
to you in confidence, as if I had known you a long time--there is your
friend Monsieur Larcher; I am sure that he doesn't like me.'

She was really agitated as she said this, for she was now about to learn
for certain, not whether Claude had been speaking ill of her--she knew
he had not by René's face--but whether the poet could hold his tongue.
She was well aware that in a love affair the dangerous time for
imprudent confidences lies at the beginning and the end. Your only sure
men are those who can keep their peace when their hearts are overflowing
with hope or bitterness. By René's reply she would be able to judge an
important trait in his character, and one that was a principal factor in
the plan that she had madly and rapidly evolved. It was only natural
that he should have confided his passion to Claude on the very day of
its birth--and he would have done so, too, had it not been for Colette's
presence. This detail was, of course, unknown to Suzanne, and René's
silence was a promise of prudence that set her heart beating.

'We have never mentioned your name,' said the poet; 'but, as you
remarked only too justly the other evening, he has always been
particularly unfortunate in his love affairs, and he cannot shake his
troubles off. If you could but see how he carries on with the woman he
is miserably in love with at the present moment!'

'That is no reason,' said Suzanne, 'why he should revenge himself by
forcing his attentions upon any woman chance throws in his way. I got
quite angry one day when he was seated next to me at table. I heard,
too, that he had been speaking ill of me, but I have forgiven him.'

'And now Claude may say what he likes,' she thought when René had gone
after promising to come again in three days' time and to bring his
collection of unpublished poems. Then she looked at herself in the glass
with unfeigned satisfaction. The interview had been a success; she had
made the poet understand that she could not receive him in the ordinary
way; she had put him on his guard against his best friend, and she had
completed her capture of his heart.

'He is mine,' she cried, and this time her joy was sincere and deep.



CHAPTER X

IN THE TOILS


Suzanne thought she was very clever--and not without reason; but by
being too clever people often defeat their own ends. Accustomed to
confound love and mere gallantry, she knew nothing of the generous
expansion of feeling to be found in one so young as the object of her
semi-romantic, semi-sensual caprice. She presumed that the insidious
accusation she had thrown out against Claude would put René on his
guard. It resulted, however, in giving the poet an irresistible desire
to talk to Larcher. It grieved him to think that the latter should
entertain a false opinion of Madame Moraines. Which of us, at
twenty-five, has not felt a desire that our dearest friend should
reserve a special place in his esteem for the woman we loved? It is as
strong then as is at forty the wise desire to hide ourselves most of all
from that same friend.

René's first act on leaving Suzanne was to proceed at once to the Rue
de Varenne. He had not been to see Claude since the day when he had met
Colette in his rooms, and as he passed through the gateway and made his
way across the spacious courtyard he could not help comparing this visit
with his last. They were separated by a very few hours only, but yet by
what a gulf! The poet was a prey to that fever of delight which makes
reasoning impossible. He did not reflect that his Madonna had been
wonderfully clever in bringing matters to such a pass so soon. The
amazing rapidity with which his hopes were being realised only delighted
him, and showed him how strong his love really was. He felt so light and
happy that he bounded up the old staircase two steps at a time, just as
he used to do when as a boy he came home from school after reaching the
top of the class. To-day Larcher's man admitted him without the
slightest hesitation, but he wore such a long face that René asked him
what was the matter.

'It isn't right, sir,' sighed Ferdinand, shaking his head. 'Master has
been at it now for forty-eight hours--writing, writing, writing--and
with only about six hours' sleep altogether. You ought really to tell
him, sir, that he'll damage his constitution. Why can't he get into a
nice, comfortable habit of working a little every day, like everybody
else?'

The man's wise remonstrances prepared René for the sight that he knew
so well--the 'den' in which he had seen Colette enthroned turned into a
writer's workshop. He went in. The broad leather-covered couch on which
the graceful but frivolous actress had reclined was now covered with
sheets of paper flung down and covered with great straggling characters
written in haste; similar sheets, all torn or crumpled, being strewn
about the floor, and the chimney-piece encumbered with half-opened
bundles of proofs.

Larcher, with a beard of three days' growth and unkempt hair, was seated
at his writing-table, dressed like a beggar, in a dirty coat devoid of a
single button, a pair of worn-out slippers on his feet, and a silk
handkerchief tied in a knot round his neck. The real Bohemian, utterly
regardless of appearance from his earliest youth, came to the surface
every time the would-be swell was obliged to step out of his part and
put his shoulder to the wheel. And this he was obliged to do pretty
frequently. Like all literary workers whose time is their sole capital,
and who, therefore, lead most irregular lives, Claude was always
behindhand with his work and short of money, especially since his
relations with Colette had involved him in that most ruinous expense of
all--the expense incurred by a young man for a woman he does not keep.
Besides the salary she drew from the theatre, the actress had an income
of twenty thousand francs, left her by an old admirer, a Russian noble
who was killed at Plevna; but what with riding about and dining out with
his mistress, and buying her heaps of flowers and presents, Claude had
to find many a bank-note. The proceeds of the two plays being long
spent, the writer was forced to earn these wretched notes by overworking
his brain in the intervals of his enervating debauches.

'At it again!' he cried, looking up with his pale face and clasping
René's hand in his feverish grasp. 'Fifteen chapters to be delivered at
once. A splendid stroke of business with the _Chronique Parisienne_, the
new eight-page paper financed by Audry. They came and asked me for a
story the other day to run as a _feuilleton_ for a fortnight. A franc a
line. I told them I had one ready--only wanted copying. My dear
fellow--hadn't got a word written--not that! But I had an idea. Re-write
"Adolphe" up to date in our jargon, and put in our local colouring. It
will be a beastly hash, but all that's nothing. Do you know what it
means to sit down and write while your heart is being tortured by
jealousy? I am here at my table, scribbling a phrase; an idea occurs to
me, and I want to hold it. Now for it, I think. Suddenly a voice within
me says: "What is Colette doing now?" And I put down my pen as the
pain--ah! such terrible pain!--comes over me. Balzac used to say that he
had discovered how much brain matter was wasted in a night's debauch:
half a volume; and he used to add, "There is not a woman breathing worth
two volumes a year." What nonsense! It isn't love that wears out an
artist, but the continual worry of some fixed idea causing one long
heart-ache. Is it possible to think and feel at the same time? We must
choose one or the other. Victor Hugo never felt anything--nor did
Balzac. If he had really loved his Madame Hanska he would have run after
her all over Europe, and would have cared for his "Comédie humaine" as
much as I do for this rubbish. Ah! my dear René,' he continued with an
air of dejection as he gathered up the sheets scattered all over his
desk, 'keep to your simple mode of life. I hope you have not been weak
enough to accept the invitations of any of the sharks you met at Madame
Komof's.'

'I have only paid one visit,' replied René, 'and that was to Madame
Moraines.' He could scarcely control himself as he pronounced her name.
Then, with the involuntary impetuosity of a lover who, though come
expressly to speak of his mistress, is afraid of criticism, and staves
off the reply as he would thrust aside the point of a dagger, he added,
'Isn't she sweetly pretty and graceful? And what lofty ideas she has! Do
you think ill of her too?'

'Bah!' exclaimed Claude, too full of his own sufferings to pay much heed
to René's words, 'I dare say we could find something ugly in her past
or her present if we tried. All women have within them the toad that
springs from the mouth of the princess in the fairy tale.'

'Is there anything you know about her?' asked the poet.

'Anything _I_ know!' replied Claude, struck by the strange tone of his
friend's voice. He looked at René and saw how matters stood.

Mixing as he did in Parisian society, he was well acquainted with the
rumours concerning Suzanne and Baron Desforges, and with the
easy-going--though sometimes mistaken--credulity of a misanthrope to
whom every infamy seems probable because possible, he believed them. For
a moment he was tempted to inform René of these rumours, but he held
his tongue. Was it from motives of prudence, and in order not to make an
enemy of Desforges, in case Suzanne should get to know what he had said,
and tell the Baron? Was it out of pity for the grief his words would
cause René? Was it for the cruel delight of having a companion in his
torture--for how much better was Suzanne than Colette? Was he impelled
by the curiosity of an analyst and the desire to witness another's
passion? Who shall determine the exact point of departure of so many and
such complex motives as go to make up a sudden resolve?

Claude paused for a moment, as if to ransack his memory, and then
repeated his friend's question. 'Is there anything I know about her?
Nothing at all. I am a _professional woman-hater_, as the English say. I
only know the woman through having met her here and there, and I thought
her a little less foolish than most of her kind. It's true she is very
pretty!' And then, either out of malice or in order to sound René's
heart, he added, 'Allow me to congratulate you!'

'You talk as though I were in love with her,' replied René, growing red
with shame. He had come there with the intention of singing Suzanne's
praises, and now Claude's bantering tone caused his confidences to
freeze upon his lips.

'So you are not in love with her!' cried Larcher, with his most horribly
cynical laugh. Then, with one of those generous impulses in which his
better and truer nature revealed itself, he took his friend's hand and
begged his pardon. Seeing in René's eyes that this was about to provoke
a fresh outburst, he stopped him. 'Don't tell me anything. You'd only
hate me for it afterwards. I'm not fit to listen to you to-day. I am
enduring torture, and that makes me cruel.'

So it happened that even Suzanne's clumsy manœuvring turned out
favourably for her plan of capture. The only man whose hostility she had
to fear had voluntarily imposed silence upon himself. Since René was in
absolute need of a confidante to receive the overflow of his feelings,
it was to Emilie that he turned, and poor Emilie, out of sheer sisterly
vanity, was already the abettor of the unknown lady whom she had seen
through her brother's eyes encircled with a halo of aristocracy.

The very next morning after the _soirée_ at Madame Komof's she had
guessed from René's words that Madame Moraines was the only woman he
had met there whom he really liked, and the only one, too, upon whom he
had made any strong impression. Mothers and sisters possess some
peculiar sense for perceiving these shades of feeling. For the next few
days after making her discovery René's restlessness was very plain to
Emilie. Bound to him by the double bond of affection and moral affinity,
no feeling could traverse her brother's heart without finding an echo in
her own. She knew that René was in love as well as if she had been
present in the spirit during the two meetings in the Rue Murillo. She
felt delighted, too, without being at all jealous, though her brother's
attachment to Rosalie had caused her not only jealousy, but anxiety.
With peculiarly feminine logic, she thought it but natural that the poet
should enter upon an intrigue with a woman who was not free. She
recognised that exceptional men require a mode of life and a standard of
morality as exceptional as themselves, and she felt that this love of
René's for a grand lady, whilst realising the proud dreams she had
formed for her idol, would not rob her of a jot of affection.

His passion for Rosalie, on the contrary, she had regarded as an
infringement upon her rights. This was because Rosalie resembled her,
and was of her world, and because René's attachment to her could only
result in marriage and the setting up of another home. It was therefore
with secret joy that she beheld the birth of a fresh passion in her
brother. She would have been glad if he had taken her further into his
confidence, and so completed the confession he had made on awakening
only a few hours after the _soirée_ at Madame Komof's. But this he had
not done, neither had she led him on to do so, her instinct telling her
that René's confidences would only be the more complete for being
spontaneous. So she waited, watching his eyes, whose every look she knew
so well, for that expression of supreme joy which is the fever of
happiness. Her silence was also to a great extent due to the fact that
she only saw René when Fresneau was present. With that natural
cowardice begotten of certain false positions, the poet left the house
as soon as he was up and returned only in time for lunch. Then he again
took himself off until dinner, going out immediately after, in order to
avoid meeting Rosalie. The professor's abstraction was so great that he
did not even notice this change in René's habits. Such, however, was
not the case with Madame Offarel. Having come on two consecutive
evenings with her two daughters and seen nothing of him whom she already
looked upon as her son-in-law, she did not hesitate to remark upon his
unwonted absence.

'Does Monsieur Larcher present Monsieur René to a fresh comtesse every
evening that we never see him here now, nor at our house either?'

'It's true,' observed Fresneau, 'I never see him now. Where does he get
to?'

'He has set to work again upon his "Savonarola,"' replied Emilie, 'and
he spends his evenings at the Bibliothèque.'

Early on the morning after this conversation, which was also the morrow
of René's second visit to Suzanne, Emilie entered her brother's room to
give him a full account of what had been said. She found him getting out
a few sheets of fine note-paper--some that she had bought for him--on
which he was about to copy, in his best handwriting, the verses he was
to read to Madame Moraines. The table was covered with sheet upon sheet
of his poems, from which he had already made a selection.

When Emilie told him of her innocent fib he kissed her, and exclaimed,
with a laugh, 'How clever you are!'

'There is nothing clever in it,' she replied; 'I am your sister, and I
love you.' Then, taking up some of the papers scattered about, she
asked, 'Do you really think of getting on with your book?'

'No,' answered René, 'but I have promised to read a few of my verses to
some one.'

'To Madame Moraines?' exclaimed his sister.

'You have guessed it,' replied the poet, looking slightly confused. 'Ah!
if you only knew!'

And then the pent-up confidence burst forth. Emilie had to listen to an
enthusiastic eulogy of Suzanne and all that concerned her. In the same
breath René spoke of the lofty nobility of this woman's ideas and of
the shape of her shoes, of her marvellous intelligence and of the
figured velvet oh her blotting-book. That childish astonishment at these
luxurious details should be united to the more poetic fancies in the
fabric of love did not surprise Emilie. Had she herself in her love for
René not always associated petty desires with boundless ambition? She
wished, for instance, with almost equal fervour, that he might have
genius and horses, that he might write another 'Childe Harold,' and
possess Byron's income of four thousand a year. In this she was as
ingenuously plebeian as he himself, confounding--in excusable fashion,
after all--real aristocracy of sentiment with that aristocracy expressed
by outer and worldly forms. Those who come of a family in which the
struggle for bread has lowered the tone of thought easily mistake the
second of these aristocracies for a condition inseparable from the
first.

Those words, therefore, which might have led an unkind listener to think
that René loved Suzanne for her surroundings, and not for herself,
charmed Emilie instead of shocking her, and she had so fully entered
into her brother's infatuation that on leaving him she said: 'You are
not at home to anyone--I'll see that no one comes in. You must show me
your verses when you have written them--mind you choose them well.'

The task of making this selection cheated the poet's ardour, and he was
able to await the day fixed for his next visit to the paradise in the
Rue Murillo without much impatience. The hours of solitude, broken only
by his talks with Emilie, passed by in alternate fits of happiness and
melancholy. Often a delightful vision of Suzanne would rise up before
him. He would then lay down his pen, and all the objects about him would
melt away, as if by magic. Instead of the red hangings of his room, it
was the little _salon_ of Madame Moraines that he saw; gone were his
dear Albert Dürers, his Gustave Moreaus, his Goyas, his small library
on whose shelves the 'Imitatio' rubbed shoulders with 'Madame
Bovary'--gone were the two leafless trees that stood out black against a
light blue sky. But in their place he could see Suzanne, her dainty
ways, the poise of her head, the peculiar golden tint of her hair, and
the transparent pink of her lovely complexion.

This apparition, which had nothing of a pale or shadowy phantom about
it, appealed to René's senses in a way that ought to have made him
understand that Madame Moraines' attitudes did but mask the true woman,
the voluptuous though refined courtesan. But of this he took no note,
and, whilst madly desirous to possess her, he believed that his worship
of her was of the most ethereal kind. This mirage of sentiment is a
phenomenon frequently observed in men who lead chaste lives, and one
which renders them the defenceless prey of the most barefaced hypocrisy.
The inability to understand their own feelings makes them still more
incapable of analysing the tricks of the women who arouse in them the
accumulated passion of a lifetime. The poet, however, became perfectly
lucid as soon as Suzanne's image made way for that of Rosalie. On going
through his papers he was continually coming across some page headed, in
boyish fashion, 'For my flower;' that was the name he had given Rosalie
in the heyday of his love, when he had written her a fresh poem almost
every morning.

'O Rose of candour and sincerity!' were the terms in which he addressed
her at the end of one of these effusions. When his eyes fell upon such
lines he was again obliged to lay down his pen, and once more his
surroundings would melt away, but this time to make room for a vision of
torture. The rooms occupied by the Offarels lay before him, cold and
silent. The old woman was busy with her cats. Angélique was turning
over the leaves of an English dictionary, and Rosalie was looking at
him, René--looking at him through an ocean of space with eyes in which
he read no reproach, but only deep distress. He knew as well as if he
were there, near her, that she had guessed his secret, and that she was
suffering the pangs of jealousy. If such were not the case would he have
been so terribly afraid to meet the girl's eyes? Would that he could go
to her and say, 'Let us be only friends!' It was his duty to do so. The
only means of preserving one's self-esteem is by acting with absolute
loyalty in these subsidings of love, which are like fraudulent
bankruptcies of the heart. But that loyalty was thrust aside by weakness
in which both egoism and pity were equally represented. He took up his
pen again, and saying, as on the first day, 'We shall see--later on,' he
tried to work. Soon he had to stop once more as his mind reverted to
Rosalie's sufferings. He thought of the long nights she would spend in
tears, knowing as he did every trifling habit of the simple creature who
had given him her heart. She had often told him that the only time she
could indulge in her own grief was at night. Then he hid his face in his
hands and waited till the vision had passed, meanwhile saying to
himself, 'Is it my fault?'

A law in our nature bids our passions grow stronger in proportion to the
number of obstacles to be overcome, so that the remorse of his
infidelity to poor Rosalie resulted in making René's heart beat faster
as the time fixed by Madame Moraines for their next meeting drew near.
She, on her side, awaited him with an almost feverish impatience that
astonished even herself. She had looked out for the young poet whenever
she had been in the street, and again at the Opera when Friday came
round. Had she seen his eyes fixed upon her in that simple adoration
which is as compromising as a declaration, she would have said, 'How
imprudent!' Not to see him, however, gave her a slight fit of doubt,
which brought her caprice to its climax. She looked forward to this
visit all the more anxiously because she considered it decisive. It was
the third time René visited her, and, out of these three times, twice
unknown to her husband. Further than that she could not go, on account
of the servants. A day or two back Paul, meaning no harm, had said to
her at dinner, 'I was talking to Desforges about René Vincy. He doesn't
seem to have made a good impression on the Baron. It is decidedly better
not to see the authors too closely whose works we admire.'

If the servant who had announced the poet had been in the dining-room at
the moment these words were uttered Suzanne would have had to speak. The
same thing might happen the next or any other day. She was therefore
determined to find a peg in her conversation with René on which to hang
an appointment elsewhere. An idea suddenly occurred to her of going
somewhere with the poet under pretence of curiosity--a meeting in Notre
Dame, for instance, or in some old church sufficiently distant from the
fashionable quarter of Paris to be beyond the risk of danger, and she
relied upon one or other of René's poems to furnish her with an
opportunity of making such an appointment.

On this occasion she once more wore a walking-dress, for, having
attended a marriage ceremony in the morning, she had kept on the rather
smart mauve gown in which her shapely figure, elegant shoulders, and
slim waist were so well set off. Thus attired, and lounging back in a
low arm-chair--an attitude that marked the adorable outlines of her
body--she begged the poet, after the usual commonplaces had passed, to
commence his reading. She listened to his poetry without betraying any
surprise at the peculiar drawl with which even the best scholars intone
their verses, her great intelligent eyes and the repose of her face
seeming to indicate the closest attention. At rare intervals she would
venture upon some apparently involuntary exclamation, such as: 'How
beautiful that is!' or, 'Will you repeat those lines?--I like them so
much!'

In reality, she cared little for the poet's verses, and understood them
less. To comprehend even superficially the work of a modern artist--in
whom there is always a critic and a scholar--requires such mental
development as is only met with in a small number of Society women,
sufficiently interested in culture to read much and to think more in the
midst of a life entirely opposed to all kind of study and reflection.
What made Suzanne's pretty face and big blue eyes look so pensive was
the desire not to let the important word slip by upon which to hang her
project. But line came after line, stanzas succeeded sonnets, and yet
she had not been able to seize upon anything which could reasonably be
made to give the conversation the turn she wanted. What a pity it was!
For René's eyes, that continually wandered from the page; his voice,
that shook occasionally as he read; his hands, that trembled as he
turned the leaves--all showed that her pretended admiration had
completely intoxicated the Trissotin that lurks in every author.

And now there was only one piece left! This the poet had purposely kept
to the last; it was his favourite, and bore a title which was a
revelation to Suzanne, 'The Eyes of the Gioconda.' It was rather a long
poem, half metaphysical, half descriptive, in which the writer had
striven to collect and reproduce in sonorous verse all the opinions of
the modern school of critics concerning Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece.
In this portrait of an Italian woman we ought, perhaps, to see nothing
beyond a study of the purest and most technical naturalism, one of those
struggles against conventionality in art in which the great painter
appears to have been so frequently engaged. Can it not have been an
attempt of the master to seize the unseizable--the play of a face, and
to paint the fleeting expression on the lips as they pass from repose to
a smile? In his poem René, who took a childish pride in the fact that
his family name resembled that of the village which lends its
appellation to the most subtle master of the Renaissance, had condensed
into thirty verses an entire system of natural and historical
philosophy. He valued this symbolical medley higher than the
'Sigisbée,' which contained only what was natural and appertaining to
the passions--two qualities fit only for the vulgar herd.

What then was his delight to hear Madame Moraines say, 'If I might be
allowed to express any preference, I would say that this is the piece
which pleases me most. How well you understand true art! To see the
great masterpieces with you must be a revelation! I am sure that if I
visited the Louvre under your guidance you would explain to me so much
that I see in the pictures but cannot understand. I have often wandered
about there, but quite alone!'

She waited. As soon as René had started reading this last poem she had
said to herself, 'How foolish of me not to have thought of that before!'
closing her eyes for a moment as if to retain some beautiful dream. At
the finish she had purposely used such words as would give him an
opportunity of seeing her again. He would propose a visit together to
the Louvre, to which she would accede, after having cleverly raised just
sufficient difficulties. She saw the suggestion trembling on his lips,
but he had not the courage to make it. She was therefore compelled to do
so herself.

'If I were not afraid of wasting your time----?' Then, with a sigh, 'But
we have not been acquainted long enough.'

'Oh; madame!' cried René, 'it seems to me as if I had been your friend
for years!'

'That is because you feel I am sincere in what I say,' she replied, with
a frank and open smile. 'And I am going to prove it to you once more.
Will you show me the Louvre one day next week?'



CHAPTER XI

DECLARATIONS


An appointment had been made for eleven o'clock on the following
Tuesday, in the Salon Carré of the Louvre. Whilst Suzanne was being
driven to the old palace in a cab she was counting up for the tenth time
the dangers of her matutinal escapade. 'No, it's not a very wise thing
to do,' she thought; 'and suppose Desforges discovers I've been out?
Well, there's the dentist. And what if I meet some one I know? It's very
improbable, but in that case I would tell them just as much of the truth
as was absolutely necessary.'

That was one of her great maxims--to tell as few lies as possible, to
maintain a discreet silence about most things, and never to deny
established facts. She was therefore ready to say to her husband, and to
the Baron as well, if necessary, 'I went into the Louvre this morning as
I passed. I was lucky enough to find Madame Komof's little poet there,
and he showed me through a few of the rooms. Yes,' she said to herself,
'that will do for once. But it would be madness to try it on often.'

Her mind then became occupied with other thoughts of less positive
purport. The uncertainty of what would take place in this interview with
René caused her greater agitation than she cared for. She had played
the part of a Madonna before him, and the time had now come to get down
from the altar upon which she had been so piously adored. Her feminine
tact had hit upon a bold plan--lead the poet to a declaration, reply by
a confession of her own feelings, then flee from him as if in remorse,
and so leave the way open for any step she might afterwards care to
take. Whilst playing havoc with René's heart, this plan would suspend
his judgment of her acts and absolve her of any follies she might
commit. It was bold but clever, and, above all, simple. There were,
nevertheless, a few real dangers connected with it. Let the poet
entertain distrust but for one moment and all was lost. Suzanne's heart
beat faster at the thought. How many women there are who have been
similarly situated, and who, after having reared a most elaborate fabric
of falsehoods, have been compelled to continue their _rôle_ in order to
obtain satisfaction for the true feelings that originally actuated them!
When the men on whose account such women as these have played their
hypocritical _rôles_ discover the lie palmed off upon them, their
indignation and contempt abundantly prove how important a factor vanity
is in all affection.

'Come, come,' exclaimed Suzanne, 'here am I trembling like a
school-girl!' She smiled indulgently as she uttered the words, because
they proved once more the sincerity of her feelings, and again she
smiled when, on alighting from her cab and crossing the courtyard, she
saw that she was there to the minute. 'Still a school-girl!' she
repeated to herself. A momentary fear came over her at the thought that
if René happened to arrive just after her he would see her obliged to
ask one of the attendants for the entrance to the galleries--she who had
boasted of having been there so often. She had not been in the place
three times in her life, though to-day her little feet trotted across
the spacious courtyard in their dainty laced boots as confidently as
though they performed the journey daily. 'What a child I am!' said the
inner voice once more--the voice of the Baron's pupil, who had acquired
as deep a knowledge of life as any hoary diplomat. 'He has been waiting
for me upstairs for the last half-hour!' Still she could not refrain
from looking anxiously about her as she asked her way of one of the
attendants. But her worldly knowledge had not deceived her, for no
sooner had she reached the doorway between the Galerie d'Apollon and the
Salon Carré than she saw René; he was leaning against the iron
railing, just underneath the noble work by Veronese, representing Mary
Magdalene washing our Saviour's feet, and opposite the famous Noces de
Cana.

In his boyish timidity the poor fellow had considered it his duty to put
on his very best clothes in coming to meet one who, besides being a
Madonna in his eyes, was a 'Society woman'--that vague and fanciful
entity which exists in the brain of so many young _bourgeois_, and is a
curious medley of their most erroneous impressions. He was attired in a
smart-fitting frock coat, and, although the morning was a cold one, he
wore nothing over it. He possessed only one overcoat, and that, having
been made at the beginning of the winter, did not come from the tailor
to whom he had been introduced by his friend Larcher. With his brand-new
chimney-pot hat, his new gloves, and his new boots, he almost looked as
though he had stepped out of a fashion plate, though his dress
contrasted strangely with his artistic face. If he had made himself
appear still more ridiculous, Suzanne would have found still more
reasons for growing fonder of him. Such is the way of women in love.

She understood at once that he had been afraid he would not look nice
enough to please her, and she stood in the doorway for a few seconds in
order to enjoy the anxiety that was depicted on the poet's face. When he
saw her there was a sudden rush of blood to his cheeks, though the blush
soon died away beneath the gold of his fair silken beard. What a flash,
too, lit up those dark blue eyes, dispelling the look of anguish they
contained! 'It is lucky there is no one here to see our meeting,' she
thought, for the pale light that came through the glass roof fell only
upon a few painters setting up their easels and upon a few tourists
wandering about, guide-book in hand.

Suzanne, who had taken all this in at a glance, could therefore abandon
herself to the pleasure which René's agitation afforded her; as he came
towards her he said, in a voice trembling with emotion, 'I hardly dared
to hope that you would come.'

'Why not?' she replied, with an air of candid astonishment. 'Do you
really think I cannot get up early? Why, when I go and visit my poor I
am up and dressed at eight.' And in what a tone of voice it was that she
said this! A pleasant, modest tone--like that in which a hero would tell
of something extraordinary he had done without seeing anything in it
himself--the tone in which an officer would say, 'As we were charging
the enemy!' The joke of it was that she had never ventured even to set
her foot in a poor man's dwelling. She had as great a horror of poverty
as of sickness or of old age, and to her selfish nature charity was a
thing almost unknown. But at that moment René would have looked upon
anyone who dared charge her with selfishness as guilty of the most
infamous blasphemy. After having uttered her well-chosen words this
novel Sister of Mercy stopped for a moment in order to enjoy their
effect. In René's eyes shone that look of blind faith which these
pretty hypocrites are so accustomed to regard as their due that they
charge all who refuse it them with heartlessness. Then, as if to evade
an admiration that embarrassed her modesty, she went on, 'You forget
that you are my guide to-day. I will pretend I know nothing of any of
these pictures; I shall then be able to see whether we have the same
tastes.'

'_Mon Dieu!_' thought René, 'I must take care not to show her anything
that might give her a bad opinion of me!' The most commonplace women
can, when they choose, inspire a man who is vastly superior to them with
this sensation of utter inferiority.

They had now commenced their tour, he leading her to those masterpieces
which he thought would please her. How well acquainted he was with all
the galleries of his dear Louvre! There was not one of these pictures
that did not recall the memory of some dream of his youth--a youth
entirely spent in adorning with beautiful images the shrine we all carry
within us before our twentieth year, but from which our passions soon
expel all but the image of Venus! These pale and noble frescoes of Luini
that hang in the narrow room to the right of the Salon Carré--how often
had he not come to gaze upon their pious scenes when he wished to lend
his poetry the soft charm, the broad and tender touch, of the old
Lombard master! He had feasted his eyes for whole hours upon the mighty
Crucifixion by Mantegna--a fragment of the magnificent painting in the
church of San Zeno at Verona--as well as upon that most glorious of
Raphaels, Saint George--an ideal hero dealing the dragon a furious
stroke of his sword whilst spurring his white charger in pink trappings
across the fresh greensward, symbolic of youth and hope. But it was more
especially the portraits which had been the objects of his most fervent
pilgrimages--from those of Holbein, Philippe de Champaigne, and Titian,
to that of the elegant and mysterious lady simply attributed in the
catalogue to the Venetian school, and bearing a cipher in her hair. He
loved to think, in company with a clever critic, that this cipher meant
Barbarelli and Cecilia--the name of the Giorgione and that of the
mistress for whom tradition says that this great master died. During a
visit he had once paid to the Louvre with Rosalie he had told her the
romantic and tragic story on this very spot and before this very
portrait. He now found himself repeating it to Suzanne, and in almost
the same words.

'The painter loved her, and she betrayed him for one of his friends. At
Vienna there is a picture painted by himself in which you see his sweet,
sad eyes resting upon his treacherous friend, who approaches him with a
gleaming dagger concealed behind his back.'

Yes--the same words! When Rosalie heard the story she had turned her
eyes upon him, and he had distinctly read the thoughts that filled her.
'How can any woman betray the man who loves her?' With her the question,
had remained a dumb one, but Suzanne, after having stared curiously at
the mysterious woman with the thin lips, gave expression to her thoughts
with a sigh and a shake of her fair head. 'And yet she looks so good. It
is terrible to think that a woman with a face like that could lie!'

As she spoke she too turned her eyes upon René; and, gazing into the
clear depths that presented such a contrast to Rosalie's dark orbs, he
felt a strange remorse. By one of those ironies of the inner life which
a comparison of consciences would often reveal, Suzanne, unspeakably
happy in strolling amidst these pictures, which she pretended to admire,
was keenly enjoying the impression that her beauty was making on her
companion, whilst the latter, a simple child, reproached himself with
the double treachery of leading this ideal creature through places that
he had once visited with another. The fatal comparison which, since his
first meeting with Madame Moraines, was effacing poor little Rosalie
from his mind was becoming more obtrusive than ever.

A vision of his betrothed floated before him, humble as she herself, but
beside him walked Suzanne, a living sister of the aristocratic beauties
the old masters had portrayed on their canvases. Her golden hair shone
brightly under her little bonnet; the short astracan jacket fitted her
like a glove, and her grey check skirt hung in graceful folds. In her
hand was a small muff, from which peeped out the corner of an
embroidered handkerchief; the muff matched her jacket, and every now and
then she would hold it up just above her eyes in order to get the right
light to see the pictures well. How could the present fail to conquer
the absent--an elegant woman fail to oust a simple, modest girl,
especially since in Suzanne all the refinement of an æsthetic soul
seemed allied to the most exquisite charm of external appearance and
attitude?

She who in her crass ignorance would have been unable to distinguish a
Rembrandt from a Perugino, or a Ribera from a Watteau, had a clever way
of listening to what René said, and of supporting the opinions he
expressed with an ingenuity that would have deceived men with more
experience of feminine duplicity than this young poet of twenty-five.
This meeting was to him a source of happiness so complete, such perfect
realisation of his most secret dreams, that he felt sad at the thought
of having attained his highest ambition. The time slipped by, and an
indescribable sensation invaded him; it was made up of the nervous
excitement that the sight of masterpieces always produces in an artist,
of the remorse he felt for his treachery in profaning the past by the
present and the present by the past, and finally of the knowledge of
Time's unrelenting flight. Yes, that delightful hour was slipping by, to
be followed by so many cold and empty ones--for never, no, never would
he dare to ask his adorable companion for another such meeting.

She, the sensual Epicurean, was only eager to prolong the delight of
mental possession. Voluptuously, carefully, and secretly did she watch
the poet from the corner of her blue eye that looked so modest beneath
its golden lashes. She was unable to take exact account of all the
changes of feeling he underwent, for although she was already well
acquainted with his inner nature, she was so entirely ignorant of all
the facts of his life that sometimes she would ask herself with a thrill
whether he had ever loved before. It was impossible to follow his
thoughts in detail, but it was not difficult to see that he was now
looking at her much more than at the pictures, and that his distress was
increasing every minute. She attributed this distress to a fit of
shyness--a shyness that delighted her, for it proved the presence of a
passionate longing tempered by respect. How pleased she was to be the
object of a desire that expressed itself with such modesty! It enabled
her to measure more correctly the gulf that separated her little
René--as she already called him in her thoughts--from the bold and
dangerous men with whom she usually mixed. His looks were full of love,
though devoid of insolence, and contained an amount of suffering that
finally decided her to lead him on to the declaration which she had
promised herself to provoke.

'_Mon Dieu!_' she suddenly cried, catching hold of the iron bar that
runs round the walls, and turning to René with a smile that was meant
to hide some sharp pain. 'It's nothing,' she added, in reply to the
poet's look of anxiety. 'I twisted my foot a little on this slippery
floor.' Then, standing on one leg, she put out the foot that she said
was hurt, and moved it about in the soft boot with a graceful effort.
'Ten minutes' rest and it will be all right, but you must be my crutch.'

As her pretty lips uttered this ugly word she took hold of René's arm,
the poet little thinking, as he almost piously helped her along, that
this imaginary accident was but one episode more in the comedy of love
in which he was playing so innocent a part. Taking care to throw her
whole weight upon him, she managed to redouble his passionate ardour and
to completely intoxicate him by the rhythmic and communicated movement
of her lithe and supple limbs. The trick succeeded only too well. He
could scarcely speak, overwhelmed as he was by the proximity of this
woman and penetrated by the subtle perfume she exhaled. It was as much
as he dared do to look at her, and then he found beside him a face both
proud and playful, a cheek of ideal colouring, and a pair of mobile
cherry lips upon which from time to time there hovered a sweet little
smile that meant mischief, though when their eyes met this smile would
change into an expression of such frank sympathy that it dispelled
René's timidity. This she knew by the greater assurance with which he
now supported her.

She had been careful to choose one of the most isolated rooms--the
_salle_ Lesueur--for acting the episode of her twisted foot. Arm-in-arm
they passed through a small passage, and, crossing one of the galleries
of the French school, entered a dark, deserted chamber in which were
then exhibited Lebrun's pictures representing the victories of Alexander
the Great. The Ingres and Delacroix gallery, by which this room is now
reached, was not yet opened, and in the centre of the floor stood a
large round ottoman covered in green velvet. Though in the very heart of
Paris, this spot was more secluded than a room in any provincial museum,
and there was no likelihood of being disturbed except by the attendant,
who was himself deep in conversation with his colleague in the next
apartment.

Suzanne took in the place at a glance, and, pointing to the ottoman,
said to René, 'Shall we sit down there for a few minutes? My foot is
much better already.'

A fresh silence fell upon them. Everything seemed to emphasise their
seclusion--from the noises in the Cour du Carrousel that came to them in
a dull murmur through the two high windows to the dim light in the room
itself. But this seclusion, instead of encouraging the poet to declare
his passion, only increased his distress. He said to himself, 'How
pretty she is, and how sweet! She will go, and I shall never see her
again. How stupid she must think me!--I feel quite paralysed near her
and incapable of speech.' 'I shall never have a better opportunity,'
thought Suzanne.

'You are very sad,' she said aloud, bestowing upon him a look of
affectionate and almost sisterly sympathy. 'I noticed it as soon as I
arrived,' she continued, 'but you do not trust me sufficiently to tell
me your troubles.'

'No,' replied René, 'I am not sad. Why should I be? I have everything
that can make me happy.'

She looked at him again with an expression of surprise and mute
interrogation that seemed to say, 'Tell me what you have to make you
happy?' René thought he saw that question in her eyes, but dared not
understand it so. He sincerely believed himself to be so inferior to
this woman that he had not the courage to disclose to her the depths of
his devotion. All Suzanne's delightful confidence, in which he could not
possibly detect any cold calculation, would be destroyed the moment he
spoke, and he therefore went on as if his words referred to the general
circumstances of life.

'Claude Larcher often tells me that I shall never be happier at any
period of my literary career. He maintains that there are four stages in
a writer's life--when he is unknown, when he is applauded by those who
wish to spite his elders, when he is maligned because he is successful,
and when he is forgiven because he is forgotten. I am so sorry you don't
know him better--I am sure you would like him. Literature is his
religion!'

'He is rather too artless, after all,' thought Suzanne, but she was too
interested in the result of this interview to give way to her
impatience. She seized upon the words René had just uttered and
interrupted his uncalled-for praises of Claude by saying, 'His religion!
It is true, that is just like you writers. I have a friend who is
undergoing the ordeal, and she is always telling me that a woman ought
to be careful not to bestow her affections upon an artist. He will never
love her as much as he loves his art.'

She repeated these supposititious words of her imaginary friend with a
look of pain upon her face; her cherry lips were parted by a
half-stifled sigh that hinted at heartrending confidences and a
presentiment of similar experiences in store for herself.

'Why, it is you who are sad,' observed René, struck by the sudden
change in her pretty face.

'Now for it!' she thought, and then replied, 'That doesn't matter. What
difference can it make to you whether I am sad or not?'

'Do you think that I take no interest in you?' rejoined René.

'A little, perhaps,' she replied, shrugging her shoulders; 'but when you
have left me will you think of me otherwise than as of some sympathetic
woman whom you have casually met and speedily forgotten?'

She had never looked so lovely in René's eyes as when she uttered these
words, which went as far as she dared go without jeopardising her game.
Her gloved hand rested on the green velvet sofa quite close to the poet,
and he was bold enough to take it. She did not draw it back. Her eyes
seemed fixed upon some vision far away, and it was doubtful whether she
had even noticed René's daring action. There are women who have a
delightful way of paying no heed to the familiarities which some people
_will_ take with them. René pressed her dainty hand, and, as she did
not resent it, he began to speak in a voice trembling with emotion:

'I have no right to be surprised at your thinking that of me. Why should
you think that my feelings towards you differ from those of other men
you meet? And yet if I told you that since the day when I first spoke to
you at Madame Komof's my life has changed for ever--ah! do not
smile--yes, for ever! If I told you that since then I have had but one
desire--to see you again; that I came to your house with a beating
heart; that every hour since then has increased my madness; that I came
here in a dream of rapture, and that I shall leave you in despair! I see
you do not believe me! People are willing to admit the existence of
these sudden and lifelong passions in novels, but do such things ever
happen in real life?'

He stopped, amazed at the boldness of his own words. As he finished
speaking there came over him that strange sensation that seizes us when
in our dreams we hear ourselves revealing some secret to the very person
from whom we ought most to hide it. She had listened to him with her
eyes still fixed on vacancy, and still wearing her look of abstraction.
But her eyelids quivered, her breath came short and quick, and her
little hand trembled as it lay in his. This was such a startling and
delightful surprise that it gave René courage to go on.

'Forgive me for talking to you like this! If you only knew--it may be
childish and silly--but when I saw you for the first time I seemed to
recognise you--you are so like the woman I have always dreamt of meeting
ever since I have had a heart. Before meeting you I only thought I
lived, I only thought I felt. What a fool I was! And what a fool I am! I
have gone and undone myself in your eyes. But at least I have told you
that I love you--you know it now. You can do with me as you will. My
God! how I love you, how I love you!'

As he gazed at her in rapt admiration and repeated the words that seemed
to relieve the feelings that raged within him he saw two great tears
fall from Suzanne's eyes and slowly make their way down her pink cheeks.
He did not know that most women can cry like that at will, especially if
they are at all nervous. These two wretched tears drove his delirium up
to its highest pitch.

'You are crying! he exclaimed; 'you----'

'Don't finish your sentence,' cried Suzanne, putting her hand on his
lips and then moving a little further off. Her eyes remained fixed upon
his face, and in them might be read both passion and a kind of startled
surprise. 'Yes, you have reached my heart. You have awakened feelings of
whose existence I had not the faintest suspicion. I am afraid--afraid of
you, afraid of myself, afraid of being here. We must never see each
other again. I am not free. I ought not even to have listened to your
words.' She stopped; then, taking his hand in hers this time, she went
on: 'Why should I deceive you? All that you feel perhaps I feel too, but
I swear to you that I did not know it until a moment ago. The feeling of
sympathy to which I yielded, and which made me come and join you here
this morning--my God!--I understand it now, I understand! Fool that I
was not to have known how easily the heart is ensnared!'

Fresh tears started from her eyes, and René was so agitated by all that
he had said and heard that he could only murmur, 'Tell me that you
forgive me!'

'Yes, I forgive you,' she replied, squeezing his hand so hard that she
hurt him. 'I feel that I love you too,' and then, as though suddenly
awakening from a dream, she added, 'Good-bye--I forbid you to follow me.
This is the last time we shall meet.'

She rose. Her face wore a threatening look, and it was clear that her
feelings of honour were now thoroughly roused. There was no longer any
thought of fatigue or of a sprained foot. She walked straight out, and
with such an angry mien that the poet, utterly crushed by what he had
undergone, saw her depart without doing anything to stop her. She had
been gone some minutes before he rushed off in the direction she had
taken. But he did not find her. Whilst he was trying first one staircase
and then another she had crossed the courtyard and jumped into a cab,
which rapidly bore her, exulting and in ecstasy, to the Rue Murillo.

Whilst René was employed in seeking means to get her to reconsider her
hasty decision he would have no time to reflect upon the rapidity with
which his Madonna had led him to make, and had herself made, a
declaration of love. So much for her exultation. The recollection of the
poet's words, of his face beaming with love, and his eyes eloquent with
passion, enchanted her as with a promise of most perfect happiness. So
much for her ecstasy. She was already drawing up her plans for the
future. He would write to her, of course--but to his first two letters
he would get no answer. On receipt of his third or fourth letter she
would pretend to believe in his threats of suicide and drop upon him at
home--to save him! Just as her thoughts had carried her as far as this,
chance, which is sometimes as sarcastic as an ill-tempered friend, made
her eyes fall upon Baron Desforges walking along the Boulevard
Haussmann. He was probably going to her house to ask her to lunch out
with him. She looked at the pretty little gold watch that hung from her
bracelet and saw that it was only twenty minutes past twelve. She would
be home in good time, and, thoroughly pleased with her morning's outing,
she took a keen delight in pulling down the little window-curtain as she
passed quite close to the Baron without being seen.



CHAPTER XII

CRUEL TO BE KIND


When René Vincy had got as far as the Museum gates without finding
Suzanne a crowd of contradictory ideas burst so suddenly upon him that
he was lifted, metaphorically speaking, off his feet. Suzanne had not
been mistaken in her calculations, the double blow she had dealt the
young poet paralysing all his powers of analysis and reflection. Had she
simply told him that she loved him he would probably have opened his
eyes and perceived the striking contrast between the angelic attitude
assumed by Suzanne and the bluntness of this declaration. He would have
had to acknowledge that the angel's wings were very loosely attached if
they could be so easily laid aside. But instead of committing the
mistake of laying them aside the angel had spread her bright pinions out
wide and disappeared. 'She loves me, and will never forgive me for
having dragged that confession from her,' said René to himself.

He fully believed that she had gone away resolved never to see him
again, and all his thoughts became concentrated upon that idea. How
could he hope to shake the resolution of a creature so sincere that she
had been unable to conceal her feelings, so saint-like that she had
immediately regarded her involuntary confession as a crime? And René
again saw her before him with terror written on her face and tears
starting from her eyes. Lost in these thoughts, he walked straight
before him, unable to bear the sight of a human being, even were it
Emilie, his dear confidante. Hailing a cab, he told the driver to take
him to Saint-Cloud. This was the first name that rose to his lips,
because Suzanne had described to him two _fêtes_ at which she had been
present in the palace when quite a girl. On getting out of the cab he
felt a savage delight in plunging into the denuded wood. A pale February
sun lit up the bleak wintry landscape and the dry leaves cracked under
his tread as he strode along. Now and then, through a network of
blackened trunks and naked branches, he could see the dreary ruins of
the old palace and the blue waters of the little lake upon which, in
bygone days, Madame Moraines had seen the unhappy Prince, since killed
at the Cape.

The impressions produced by his surroundings and by these memories of a
tragic past did not distract the poet's thoughts from the one idea that
hypnotised him, as it were--by what means he could conquer the will of
this woman whom he loved, who loved him in return, and whom he was
determined to see again at all costs. What was to be done? Call at her
house and demand admittance? Inflict his presence upon her by
frequenting the houses she visited? Waylay her at street corners and at
theatres? No--he felt that he could not do anything that might furnish
Suzanne with a single reason for loving him less. It was to her that he
looked for everything, even for the right of beholding her. The memory
of the ideals he had cherished in the first years of his manhood and the
purer years of his youth inspired him with serious thoughts of doing
absolutely nothing to approach her, of obeying her as Dante would have
obeyed Beatrice, Petrarch his Laura, Cino da Pistoia his Sylvia--those
noble poets of the ages of chivalry who gave voice to the lofty
conceptions of an imaginative and holy love full of ideal devotion. He
had so often dipped with delight into the _Vita Nuova_ and devoured the
sonnets these dreamers wrote their lady-loves. But how could such
literature, of almost ascetic purity, hold its own against the poison of
sensuous passion which, unknown to him, Suzanne's beauty and
surroundings had instilled into his blood? Obey her! No--that he could
not do. Fresh ideas welled up within him, and he sought to calm his
overwrought nerves by exercise, the only palliative for the terrible
mental agonies he was suffering.

Night fell--a wintry night preceded by a short, dismal twilight. Worn
out by the excess of emotion, René at last decided to adopt the only
course that could be put into immediate execution--that of writing to
Suzanne. On reaching the village of Saint-Cloud he entered a _café_,
and there, on a beer-stained blotting-pad, with a spluttering pen,
disgusted with the paper he used and the place he was in, disturbed by
the noise of billiard balls and blinded by the smoke of the players'
pipes, he wrote, under the insolent gaze of a dirty waiter, first one
letter, then another, and finally a third. How horrified he would have
been had Suzanne seen him sitting there! But, on the other hand, he felt
that he could not wait until he got home to tell her what he had to say,
and in the following terms, that would have greatly surprised Baron
Desforges had he read them and been told that they were addressed to his
Suzette of the Rue du Mont-Thabor, he gave vent to his excessive grief:

'I have written you several letters, madame, and torn them up, and I am
not sure that I shall send you this one, so great is my fear of
displeasing you by the crude expression of sentiments which I am sure
would not displease you if you really knew them. Alas! we cannot bare
our hearts, and will you believe me when I tell you that the feelings
which prompt me to write this letter have nothing in them that would
offend the most sensitive and pure-minded woman--not even yourself,
madame? But you know so little of me, and the feeling which, with the
divine sincerity of a soul that abhors concealment, you have permitted
me to see, has been such a surprise that, by the time I am writing these
lines, it has probably been already banished and effaced from your heart
for ever. If that be so, do not answer this letter--do not even read it.
I shall know what to make of your silence, and will bow to your
decision. I shall suffer cruelly, but my gratitude to you will be
eternal for having procured me the absolute and unalloyed delight of
seeing the Ideal of all my youthful dreams in the flesh. For such
happiness I can never be sufficiently grateful, even were I to die of
grief through having met you only to lose you. You crossed my path, and
by your existence alone you have proved that my ideal was no myth.
However hard my lot may one day be, this dear, divine memory will be to
me a talisman, a magic charm.

'But, unworthy as I am, should the feeling that I read in your eyes this
morning--how beautiful they were at that moment, and how I shall always
remember them!--should, I say, that feeling conquer your virtuous
indignation, should that sympathy with which you reproached yourself
still live in your heart, should you remain, in spite of yourself, the
woman who wept when she heard me confess my love and adoration--then I
conjure you, madame, to wrest some pity from that sympathy. Before
confirming the sentence to which I am quite ready to submit--that
terrible sentence never to see you more--let me ask you to put me to one
single proof. My request is so humble, and so subservient to your will.
Hear it, I beg. If I have guessed rightly from the all too short and
fleeting conversations we have had, your life, though apparently so
complete, is devoid of many things. Have you never felt the need of
having near you a friend to whom you could confide your troubles, a
friend who would never speak to you again as he once dared to do, but
who would be content to breathe the same air as yourself, and to share
your joys and sorrows--a friend on whom you could rely, whom you could
take or leave at your sweet will--in a word, a thing of your own, whose
very thoughts would be yours? Such a friend, with no desire beyond that
of serving you, regretting only that he has not always done so, and
entertaining no criminal hopes whatever, is what I dreamt of becoming
before that interview in which my feelings were stronger than my will.
And I feel that I love you sufficiently to realise that dream even now.
Nay, do not shake your head. I am sincere in my entreaties, sincere in
my determination never to utter a word which will make you repent your
forbearance if you decide to put me to this proof. Will it not be time
enough to banish me from your presence when you think me in danger of
breaking the promise I now make?

'My God! how empty my phrases seem! I tremble at the thought that you
will read these lines, and that is why I can scarcely write them. What
will your answer be? Will you call me back to that shrine in the Rue
Murillo where you have already been so kind and so full of indulgence
that the memory of the minutes spent there falls like balm upon my
aching heart? That poor heart beats only for you in obedient and humble
admiration. Say--oh! say that you forgive me. Say that you will let me
see you once more. Say that you will let us try to be friends. You would
say all this, I know, if you could read what is in my heart. And even if
you do not speak those blessed words, there shall be no murmuring, no
reproaches, nothing but eternal gratitude--gratitude as deep in
martyrdom as it would have been in ecstasy. I have learnt to-day how
sweet it is to suffer through those one loves!'

It was six o'clock when René posted this letter. He gazed after it as
it disappeared in the box, and no sooner had it left his hand than he
began to regret having sent it, the anguish of suspense respecting the
result being greater than his sufferings of the afternoon. In his
disturbed state of mind he had entirely forgotten his daily habits and
the fact that he had never stayed from home a whole day without giving
some previous explanation. He sat down to dinner in the first restaurant
he came across, without a thought of his people at home, and completely
absorbed in speculations as to what Suzanne would do after reading his
effusion. The first thing that awoke him from his state of
semi-somnambulism was the exclamation of Françoise when, having reached
home on foot about half-past nine, he opened the door and found himself
face to face with the big, clumsy maid, who nearly dropped the lamp with
fright.

'Oh! sir,' she cried; 'if you only knew how uneasy you've made Madame
Fresneau--it's sent her into fits.'

As Emilie ran out into the passage to meet him René said, 'You don't
mean to say that you've been upset by my not coming home? I couldn't
help it,' he added in an undertone as he kissed her; 'it was on _her_
account.'

Emilie, who had really spent a most wretched evening, looked at her
brother. She saw that he too had been greatly agitated, and that his
eyes were burning feverishly; she had not the courage to reproach him
with selfishness in paying no regard to her own unreasonable
susceptibilities--though he knew them so well--and replied in a whisper,
as she pointed to the half-open door of the dining-room: 'The Offarels
are here.'

These simple words sufficed to give a sudden turn to René's feelings.
His fever of suspense was dispelled by a more pressing fear. During the
sweetest moments of his walk through the Louvre that morning the memory
of Rosalie had been able to give him pain--even when he was with
Suzanne! And now he was obliged to unexpectedly face--not a vision--but
the girl herself, to meet those eyes which he had avoided in such
cowardly fashion for days past, to gaze upon that pallor which he
himself had caused. A sense of his treachery once more came over him,
but this time it was more painful and acute than ever. He had spoken
words of love to another woman before breaking off his engagement with
her whom he justly regarded as his betrothed.

He entered the dining-room as if he were walking to the scaffold, and
had no sooner come under the full light of the lamp than he saw by the
look in Rosalie's eyes that she read his heart like an open book. She
was seated between Fresneau and Madame Offarel, working as usual, her
feet resting on the supports of an empty chair upon which she had placed
her ball of wool and her father's hat; this, as René knew well enough,
was only an innocent ruse to get him to sit near her when he came home.
She and her mother were knitting some long mittens for old Offarel, who
had now got hold of an idea that he was going to have gout in his
wrists. Her fanciful parent was there, too, drinking, in spite of his
imaginary ills, a glass of good strong grog and playing piquet with the
professor. It was Emilie who had proposed the game in order to
discourage general conversation, and so be able to give herself up to
thoughts of her absent brother, whilst Angélique Offarel had been
helping her to unravel some skeins of silk. A soft light illumined this
quiet, peaceful scene, symbolical, in the poet's eyes, of all that had
so long constituted his happiness, and which he had now given up for
ever. Fortunately for him the professor immediately made his loud voice
heard, and so put an end to his further reflections.

'Young man,' cried Fresneau, 'you can boast of having a sister who
thinks something of you, I can tell you! She was actually proposing to
sit up all night! "Something must have happened to him. He would have
sent a wire." For two pins she would have sent me off to the Morgue. It
was no use my suggesting that some one had kept you to dinner. Come,
Offarel, it's your deal.'

'I had to go into the country,' replied René, 'and I lost the train.'

'How badly he tells them!' thought Emilie, admiring her brother as much
for his unskilfulness, which in this case was a sign of honesty, as she
would have admired him for Machiavelian cleverness.

'You look rather pale,' observed Madame Offarel aggressively, 'aren't
you well?'

'Shall I make room for you here, Monsieur René?' asked Rosalie, with a
timid smile; 'I'll take away papa's hat.'

'Give it to me,' said old Offarel, perceiving a place for it on the
sideboard; 'it will be safer here. It's my Number One, and mamma would
scold me if any harm came to it.'

'It's been Number One for such a long time,' cried Angélique, with a
laugh. 'Look here, papa, here's a real Number One,' she added, holding
up René's hat under the lamp-light and comparing its glossy nap with the
shabby silk and old-fashioned shape of her father's headgear, much to
the latter's disadvantage.

'But nothing is too good for Monsieur René now,' observed Madame
Offarel with her usual acrimony, venting the rest of her displeasure
upon Angélique, whose action had annoyed her. 'You'll be lucky if your
husband is always as well dressed as your father.'

René was seated by Rosalie's side, and let the epigram of the terrible
_bourgeoise_ pass unnoticed, taking no part either in the rest of the
conversation, which Emilie wisely led round to cookery topics. Madame
Offarel was almost as keen on this subject as she was on that of her
feline pets. Not content with having recipes of her own for all kinds of
dishes, such as _coulis d'écrevisses_, her triumph, and _canard sauce
Offarel_, as she had proudly named it, she also kept a list of addresses
where specialities might be obtained. Treating Paris like Robinson
Crusoe treated his island, she would, from time to time, start out on a
foraging expedition to the most remote quarters of the capital, going to
some particular shop for her coffee and to another for her _pâtes
d'Italie._ She knew the exact date on which a certain man received his
consignment of Bologna sausages, and when another got his Spanish olives
in.

The slightest incidents of these excursions were magnified by her into
events. Sometimes she would go on foot, and then her comments on the
improvements she had noticed, on the increase in the traffic, and on the
superiority of the air in the Rue de Bagneux were inexhaustible. At
other times she would go by omnibus, and then her fellow-passengers
formed the subject of her remarks. She had met a very nice woman who was
very fat, or a young man who was very impertinent; the conductor had
recognised her and said good morning; the 'bus had nearly been upset
three times; an old gentleman--'decorated'--had had some trouble in
alighting. 'I really thought he would fall, poor, dear old man!'

The insignificant and superfluous details upon which it pleased the poor
woman's simple mind to dilate generally amused René, for the
_bourgeoise_ sometimes hit upon some curious figures of speech in her
flow of words. She would say, for instance, when speaking of a
fellow-passenger who was paying attentions to a cook laden with
provisions, 'Some people like their pockets greasy,' or of two persons
quarrelling, 'They fought like Darnajats'--a mysterious expression which
she had always refused to translate.

But that evening there was too pronounced a contrast between the state
of romantic excitement into which his interview with Suzanne had thrown
the poet and the meanness of the surroundings in which he had been born.
He did not stop to think that similar contrasts are to be found in every
form of life, and that the substrata of the fashionable world are
composed of mean rivalries, of disgusting attempts to keep up illusory
appearances, and of compromises of conscience compared with which the
narrow-mindedness of the middle classes is a proof of the most
delightful simplicity.

He looked at Rosalie, and the resemblance between the girl and her
mother struck him most forcibly. She was pretty, for all that. Her oval
face, pale with evident grief, had an ivory tint as she bent down over
her knitting in the lamp-light, and when she raised her eyes to his the
sincerity of the passion that animated her shone forth from beneath her
long lashes. But why were her eyes of precisely the same shade of colour
as her mother's? Why, with twenty-four years between them, had they the
same shape of brow, the same cut of the chin, and the same lines of the
mouth? But how unjust to blame this innocent child for that resemblance,
for that pallor, for that grief, and even for the silence in which she
wrapped herself! Alas! that it should be so, but when we have wronged a
woman it is easy enough to find an inexhaustible source of unjust
complaints against her.

Rosalie had unwittingly committed the crime of adding remorse to the
feelings brought into play by René's fresh passion. She represented
that past which we never forgive if it becomes an obstacle between us
and our future. False as most women are in matters of love, their
perfidy can never sufficiently punish the secret selfishness of the
majority of men. If René had had the sorry courage of his friend Claude
Larcher, and looked himself straight in the face, he would have had to
confess that the real cause of his irritation lay in the fact that he
had deceived Rosalie. But he was a poet, and one who was an adept at
throwing a veil over the ugly parts of his soul.

He therefore compelled himself to think of Suzanne, and of the noble
love which had sprung up and was burning within him; for the first time
he succeeded in forming a resolve to break definitely with Rosalie,
saying to himself, 'I will be worthy of _her!_' _She_ was the lying
wanton who, with her luxurious surroundings, her rare science of dress,
her incomparable power of aping sentiment, and her seductive,
soul-troubling beauty, had such immense advantages over sweet,
simple-hearted Rosalie. Her beauty once more rose up before René's
enslaved imagination just as old Offarel was giving the signal for
departure by rising and saying to Fresneau, 'I've won fourteen _sous_
from you--ha! ha! that'll keep me in cigars for a week. Come,' he added,
turning to his wife, 'are you ladies ready?'

'Since we are all here,' replied Madame Offarel, emphasising the word
'all' by darting a look at René. 'When are you coming to dinner? Would
Saturday suit you? That's M. Fresneau's best day, I believe?' The
professor replying in the affirmative, she now addressed herself to the
poet direct, 'Will that suit you, René? You'll be more comfortable at
our place, I can assure you, than amongst all those grand people on whom
your friend Larcher goes sponging.'

'But, Madame----' exclaimed the poet.

'Oh--that's enough!' cried the old lady; 'I always remember what my dear
mother used to say: a crust of bread at home is better than a stuffed
turkey at another's table.'

Although this epigram of Rosalie's mother was simply nonsense when
applied to the unhappy Claude, whose acute dyspepsia seldom permitted
him to drink even a glass of wine, it wounded René as deeply as if it
had been thoroughly deserved. This was because he saw in it yet another
sign of deep and ever-increasing hostility between his old associations
and the new life for which since that morning he so eagerly and ardently
longed. These people had a right to him--a fuller right than Madame
Offarel knew, for was he not bound to Rosalie by a secret understanding?
A fresh fit of irritation against this poor child came over him, and he
said to himself more firmly than before, 'I shall break it off.'

Having arrived at that decision, he went to bed, but could not sleep.
The current of his ideas had changed. He was now thinking of his letter.
It must have reached Suzanne by this, and a series of unforeseen dangers
spread itself out before his imagination. Suppose her husband were to
intercept the letter? A thrill ran through him as he thought of the
misery his imprudence might bring down upon this poor woman, in the
power of a tyrant whose brutality he could well imagine. And then, even
if the letter reached Suzanne safely, what if it displeased her? And he
was sure that such would be the case. He tried to remember the words he
had written. 'How can I have been such a fool as to write like that?' he
asked himself, and hoped that the letter might miscarry. He knew that
such things happened sometimes when people wished the contrary. Why
should it not happen now that he expressly desired it? He grew quite
ashamed of his childishness, and attributing it to the nervous
excitement of the evening, began once more to curse Madame Offarel's
mean-spirited remarks. His irritability against the mother paralysed all
pity for the daughter. He passed the night in this fashion, tossed
between two kinds of tortures, until he fell into that deep morning
sleep which is more tiring than refreshing; on awaking, the first
thought that occurred to him was his desire, stronger than ever, to
break off his engagement.

What means could he employ? A very simple expedient presented itself to
his mind at once--ask the girl to make an appointment. It was so easy,
too! How many times had she not let him know when Madame Offarel would
be out, so that he could come to the Rue Bagneux sure of finding her
alone with Angélique; and how considerate the latter had always been in
leaving the two lovers together and in peace! This was undoubtedly the
most loyal means to adopt. But the poet could not even bear to think of
such an interview.

In such crises we are sometimes assailed by a contemptible form of pity
that consists in unwillingness to look upon the sufferings we have
caused. We do not mind inflicting torture upon the woman we cast off,
but we do not care to see her tears. It was only natural that René
should try to spare himself this insufferable pain by writing--the
resource of the weak in every kind of rupture. Paper can stand a good
deal, people say. He got out of bed and commenced to write--but the
words would not flow easily, and he was obliged to stop. Meanwhile the
hour for the postman's first call was drawing near. Although it was
perfect madness to expect Suzanne's reply by that delivery, the lover's
heart beat faster when Emilie entered the room with his letters and the
newspaper, as was her wont when she knew he was awake. How happy would
he have been had one of the three envelopes she brought him borne that
long, elegant hand which, though seen but once, he would have recognised
amongst a hundred others! No--these were only business letters, which he
tossed aside so petulantly that his sister stared at him in surprise.

'Are you in trouble, René?' she asked, and as she put the question
there was a look of such intense devotion and love in her eyes that she
appeared to her brother like a guardian angel come to save him from the
troubles of that cruel night. Why should he not charge Emilie with the
utterance of those words he dared not formulate himself, and which he
could not manage to put into writing? He had no sooner conceived this
plan of getting over the difficulty than he hastened to carry it out
with the impetuosity common to all weak minds, and with tears in his
eyes he began to disclose the unfortunate plight he was in with regard
to Rosalie.

He told his sister exactly how the whole matter stood. Whilst his mind
was in that state of excitement frequently caused by confessions, fresh
ideas originated within him and strengthened the resolve he had made.
They were, however, such as ought to have occurred to him at the time he
was entering into those relations which he now regarded as guilty ones.
When the intimacy had first sprung up between them--a purely innocent
but clandestine affair--he had not told himself that strict morality
forbids any secret engagement of this kind, and that to accustom a girl
to elude the watchfulness of her parents is a most reprehensible
proceeding. He had not told himself then that a man of honour has no
right to declare his love until he has satisfied himself as to its
stability, and that, although the ardour of passion excuses many
weaknesses, a mere desire for obtaining fresh emotions makes such
weakness sinful. These reproaches and many more were now in his mind and
on his lips, and as he looked in Emilie's face he plainly saw what pain
his conduct had caused his confiding sister. In a narrow home circle
such dissimulation is productive of much grief to those who have been
its victims. But though Madame Fresneau felt as though she had been
imposed upon, she vented all her anger upon the girl, and upon her
alone, exclaiming, after her brother had told her what he wanted her to
do, 'I never would have believed her so deceitful.'

'Don't blame her,' said René shamefacedly. If their relations had
remained hidden, whose fault was it? He therefore added: 'I am the
guilty one.'

'You!' cried Emilie, folding him in her arms. 'No, no; you are too good,
too loving. But I will do what you wish, and I promise you I'll be as
gentle as possible. It was the best thing you could have done to come to
me. We women know how to smooth things down. And then, you know, it is
only right that you should put an end to such a false position. The
sooner it's over the better, so I shall go to the Rue Bagneux this very
afternoon. If I can't see her alone I will ask her to meet me
somewhere.'

In spite of the confidence she had expressed in her own tact, Emilie
became so impressed with the difficulties of her mission that, during
lunch, she wore a look of anxiety that made her husband feel uneasy and
awakened in René feelings of remorse. In employing a third person to
tell Rosalie the truth was he not acting in a particularly cruel manner
and adding unnecessary humiliation to unavoidable pain? When his sister
came to him ready dressed, just before starting on her errand, he was on
the point of stopping her. There was still time--but he let her go. He
heard the door close. Emilie was in the street--now she was in the Rue
d'Assas--now in the Rue du Cherche-Midi.

But such thoughts as these were soon dispelled by the fever of anxiety
with which he awaited the arrival of the next post. Suzanne must have
had his letter that morning. If she had replied at once the answer would
come by the next delivery. This idea, and the approach of the moment in
which its correctness would be tested, at once cut short his pity for
the girl he had cast off. Complex as are the subtle workings of the
heart, love simplifies them wondrously. René was tortured by the
suspense felt by all lovers, from the simple soldier who expects an
ill-spelt letter from his sweetheart to the royal prince carrying on a
sentimental correspondence with the brightest and most heartless Court
beauty. The man wishes to go on with his usual occupations, but his mind
is on the alert, counting the minutes and unable to endure the torment
of waiting. He looks at the clock, and imagines all kinds of
possibilities. If he dared he would go twenty times an hour to the
person from whom he gets his letters, and ask whether there is nothing
for him. Such is the agony of waiting, with all its intense anxiety, its
mad conjectures, the burning fever of its illusions and disenchantments.
Every other feeling of the soul is burnt up and, consumed in this fire
of impatience. When Emilie came back, after having been gone an hour and
a half, René seemed to have entirely forgotten on what errand he had
sent her, but there was such a look of pain on his sister's face that it
quite startled him.

'Well?' he ejaculated, in a tone of suspense.

'It is all over,' she replied, almost in a whisper. 'Oh, René, how I
misjudged her!'

'What did she say?'

'Not a word of reproach. She only wept--but, oh, how bitterly! Her love
for you is greater than I thought. Her mother had gone out with
Angélique--how cruel it sounds!--to order the things for Saturday's
dinner. I, for one, am not going to that dinner. When Rosalie opened the
door, she turned so pale that I thought she was going to faint. She
guessed everything before I said a word. She is like I am with you--it
is a kind of second sight. She took me into her room. It is full of
you--of your portraits, of trifles that remind her of places you've been
to together, and of cuts from the illustrated papers about your play. I
began to deliver your message as gently as I could, but I give you my
word I was quite as upset as she was. She said, "It is so good of him to
have asked you to come. You at least will not think me foolish in loving
him as I do." And then she went on, "I have been expecting it for some
time. It seemed too good to be true. Ask him to let me keep his
letters." Oh, my God! I can't tell you any more about it now. I am so
afraid for you, my dear René; I am so afraid that her grief may bring
you ill luck.'



CHAPTER XIII

AT HOME


The letter posted by René at Saint-Cloud had duly reached its
destination on the morning of the day that was to complete poor
Rosalie's unhappiness. Suzanne had received it with the rest of her
correspondence a few minutes before her husband entered her room to get
his morning cup of tea, and she was just engaged in reading it when
Paul's kind and jovial face appeared in the doorway.

'_Bon jour_, Suzon,' he cried in his deep but cheery voice, adding, as
he sometimes did, 'my fair rose.' This allusion to de Musset's
well-known romance was always accompanied by a kiss. In Paul's eyes de
Musset was the embodiment of youth and love, with just a spice of
suggestiveness, and it was the favourite joke of this simple-hearted
fellow to look upon himself as Suzanne's lover, and not as a lawful
spouse. He was one of those strange husbands who say to you in
confidence, 'I have no secrets from my wife--that is the only way to
cure her of curiosity.' Meanwhile, he was as much in love with his 'fair
rose' as ever, and proved it by the manner in which he tenderly kissed
her on the neck.

But she checked further demonstrations of affection with the words, 'Get
along! See to the tea, and let me finish my letter.'

She knew that Paul would never ask her anything about her
correspondence, and it gave her such intense pleasure to read the poet's
ardent phrases that she was not satisfied with going over them once, but
read them a second time, and then, folding up the letter, slipped it
into her bodice. She looked so supremely happy as she sat down to the
table and took up the fine porcelain cup filled with fragrant tea that
Moraines, wishing to tease her, said, in a voice that was meant to be
gruff, 'If I were a jealous husband, I should think you had received a
letter from your sweetheart, you look so happy, madame. And if you knew
how nice you look like that,' he added, kissing her arm just above the
wrist, where the delicate pink skin, perfumed and warmed by her
luxurious bath, looked so inviting.

'Well, sir, you would be right,' she replied, with a roguish air. Women
take a divine pleasure in saying in fun things which, though true, will
not be believed. It procures them that mild sensation of danger which
titillates their nerves so delightfully.

'I hope this sweetheart of yours is a nice fellow?' asked Paul, quite
amused by what he considered a good joke.

'Very nice.'

'And may I know his name?'

'You are too inquisitive. Guess.'

'Bless me--no!' cried Paul. 'I should have too much to do. Ah! Suzanne,'
he added, suddenly changing his tone to one that betrayed deep feeling,
'what pain it must be to harbour suspicions! Just fancy me being jealous
of you, and having to sit in the office all day whilst my heart was
being torn by doubts! Ah! well,' this with a shrewd look, 'I would set
Desforges to watch you!'

'It's lucky there was no one to hear his "joke,"' thought Suzanne when
she was alone. 'He has a silly way of saying these things, too, when
he's out.' René's letter had, however, put her in such a good temper
that she forgot to get angry, as she would do when she thought her
husband too utterly simple. Such is the logic of these pretty and
light-hearted sinners; they will exercise all their wits in blindfolding
a man, and then blame him for stumbling. The fact of having deceived him
does not satisfy them--he must only be deceived up to a certain point.
If he goes beyond that it is too much--he makes them feel uneasy, and
they hate him for it--sincerely. Suzanne contented herself with a shrug
of her shoulders and a look of sweet pity. Then she took the letter from
its hiding-place and read it for the third time.

'It's quite true,' she said aloud; 'he is not like other men.'

Thereupon she fell into a deep reverie, in which she saw the poet as she
had seen him waiting for her at the Louvre, standing just under the
large Veronese canvas with his face turned a little to the right. How
agitated he had been when his eyes met hers! How young he was! How his
lips had trembled when he told her a little later that he loved
her--those full, fresh lips which she could have bitten like some fruit,
after having caressed his fair cheeks and the soft silken beard that
adorned his manly face. But the fruit was not yet ripe; she must learn
to wait. She sighed. Her calculation that the poet would write that very
letter, and so soon after their meeting, too, had proved correct. She
had made up her mind not to reply to it, nor yet to the second. For this
second letter she waited one, two, three days. Though her confidence in
the strength of the passion with which she had inspired René was
unshaken, she was somewhat startled when, on the afternoon of the third
day, just as her brougham was turning the corner of the Rue Murillo, she
saw him standing where she had seen him once before. She was very
careful to look as though she had not noticed him, and put on her
saddest expression, her most dreamy eyes and an air of sweet resignation
that would have moved a tiger. The comfortable brougham, furnished with
a number of dainty and useful knick-knacks, was immediately transformed
in René's eyes into a prison van containing a martyr--a martyr to her
husband, a martyr to her home, a martyr to her love, and a martyr to her
virtue.

She was not acting a very great lie, either, as she passed René. As she
saw the pallor on his cheeks, caused by three days' anguish, and the
look of despair in his eyes, she would have given much to be able to
stop the brougham, to get out or to make him get in, and to exclaim as
she carried him off, 'I love you as much as you love me!' Instead of
that she drove on to do her shopping and pay her calls, sure now that
the second letter so impatiently expected would not be long in coming.
It came the same afternoon, but just when its arrival presented most
danger. And for this reason. Having gone home immediately after meeting
Suzanne, René had written her four pages in feverish haste, and in
order that they might reach her sooner and more safely, he had sent them
about five o'clock by a commissionaire; the letter was therefore handed
to Suzanne by her manservant whilst Desforges was with her. He had come,
as he often did at that hour, with a dainty little present; this time it
was a pretty needle-case in old gold which he had picked up at a sale.

No sooner had she recognised the writing on the envelope than she said
to herself, 'The least sign of emotion and the Baron will smell a rat!'
As sometimes happens, the fear of betraying her agitation made it more
difficult for her to conceal it. She took the letter, looked at the
address as we do when trying to guess from whom a communication comes,
tore it open and skimmed its contents, after having first cast a glance
at the signature; then, getting up to place it amongst some others on
her desk, she said:

'Another, begging letter! It's astonishing how many I've had lately. How
do you manage with them, Frédéric?'

'I have a very simple plan,' replied the Baron. 'Fifty francs the first
time of asking, twenty francs the second, nothing the third. My
secretary has orders to that effect. That's one of the fads I don't
believe in--charity! Just as if it were through want of money that the
poor are poor! It's their disposition that has made them so, and that
you'll never change. Look here, take this person who is sponging on you
to-day; I'll bet twenty-five pounds that if you inquire about him you'll
find that fortune, or at least a competency, has been in his grasp ten
times during his life. If you were to set him up afresh he would be in
the same plight in a few years from now. Not that I mind giving, and as
much as people want--but as to believing that money so spent is of the
least use, that's a different thing altogether. And then these
benefactors and lady patronesses--I know them; it's all advertisement--a
means of making their way into Society and of getting hold of good
people.'

'That's enough,' said Suzanne, 'you are a terrible sceptic.' And with
that delicate irony that women sometimes use in avenging themselves upon
the man who compels them to lie, she added, 'You're not one to be easily
duped.'

The Baron accepted this flattery with a smile. Had his suspicions been
aroused, that phrase alone would have lulled them. The most cunning men
have that weak point by which they can always be conquered--vanity. But
suspicion of any kind had been far from the Baron's mind. Suzanne
deceived him as easily as René had deceived his sister. Those who see
us every day are the last to perceive what would be evident to the
merest stranger. That is because the stranger comes to us without any
preconceived idea, whilst our daily associates have formed an opinion
about us which they do not take the trouble to verify or change. The
Baron therefore did not remark that Suzanne was that afternoon a prey to
intense agitation, which lasted during the whole of his visit. He stayed
rather longer than usual, too, telling her all sorts of club stories,
while she pottered about in the room, under some pretence or other, with
one eye on her letter, seizing it once more with delight as soon as
Desforges had at last decided to go.

'He is an excellent fellow,' she said, 'but such a bore!' A fortnight's
passion had sufficed to bring her to this stage of ingratitude, and she
now found compensation for the restraint of the past hour in going over
each phrase and word of the poet's mad letter. This time it was an
ardent prayer--an appeal to a woman's love. He no longer spoke of
friendship. The air of melancholy she had assumed in the brougham had
told.

'Since you love me,' he said, 'have pity on yourself, if you have no
pity on me.' What would have appeared to Suzanne an intolerable piece of
conceit in anyone else touched her deeply as a mark of absolute
confidence in her love. She recognised it for what it really
was--worship so devout that it did not harbour a shadow of doubt. It
would have been so natural if René had accused her of having cruelly
trifled with his feelings, but such an hypothesis was far from the
poet's thoughts. 'Poor boy!' she said to herself, 'how he loves me!'
Then, thinking of Desforges by way of comparison, she added, 'It is the
best way to make sure of not being deceived!' She took the letter out
once more. Its language was so touching, and it was full of such sincere
grief; then, again, the cosy _salon_, just at that hour, reminded her so
forcibly of the poet and of his first visit, and she asked herself
whether she had not put him sufficiently to the proof. 'No,' she
concluded, 'not yet.'

This burning letter could, indeed, have but one reply--to tell René to
come and see her there, and it was in his own home that she wanted to
see him, in the little room he had described to her. She would appear
before him in a state of distraction, and under pretence of saving him
from suicide. The third letter would undoubtedly furnish her with that
pretence, and she decided to await its coming, already enjoying in
anticipation the delight of seeing René once more. Amidst the whirl of
excitement that her sudden and unexpected appearance would cause the
poet there would be no room for reflection. All the hateful
preliminaries of a false step, impossible to discuss with a man so
inexperienced as he, would be dispensed with. It was true there was the
presence of the rest of the family to consider. Suzanne would not have
been the depraved woman she was, even in this crisis of true passion, if
this detail had not given her plans the charm of doubly forbidden fruit.

She waited for that third letter with intense longing. The time slipped
rapidly by. She dined out, went to the theatre, and paid calls, her mind
entirely absorbed in that one thought. As luck would have it, Desforges,
having no doubt been lectured by Doctor Noirot, had not asked for any
appointments in the Rue du Mont-Thabor that week. She knew that this was
merely a postponement. Even after becoming René's mistress she would
still have to continue her relations with the man who supplied so many
of her luxurious wants. This seemed to her as natural as the fact of
being Paul's wife. 'What does that matter, since you know I love only
you?' is what such a wife will say to her lover when he gets into one of
those ridiculous fits of jealousy that so ill become a man in that
position. And these women are never more sincere than in uttering that
phrase. They know full well that love is totally different from duty,
interest, or even pleasure. Though Suzanne saw nothing particularly
shocking in the plural life she was leading, she was glad that the
opportunity was afforded her of devoting herself entirely to her new
passion for a day or two. In all this, however, she was still the
courtesan, one of those creatures who, when they do fall in love, become
real artists of sentiment, feeling as delicately on certain points as
they are abominably wanton in others.

'What if he should really have taken it into his head to go away!' This
was the thought that struck her when she at last received the much
desired third letter, consisting of one long, heartrending
farewell--without a word of reproach.

She trembled lest René might have had recourse to the proceeding
counselled by Napoleon, who, with his imperial good sense, said, 'In
love the only victory is flight.' In behaving as she had done she had
staked all. Would she win? What she had foreseen had come to pass with a
precision that both delighted and frightened her. The third letter bore
the imprint of such deep despair that, on reading it a second time, this
subtle actress, with all her experience, was seized by a fresh fear more
terrible than the first--the fear that René might really have destroyed
himself. In vain did she argue with herself that if the poet had had
real intentions of going away he would have mentioned it in the letter,
and that a handsome young man of twenty-five does not kill himself on
account of the silence of a woman he believes to be in love with
him--her anguish was none the less real and intense when she reached the
Rue Coëtlogon a few hours after having received the letter.

It was two o'clock. She stopped for a moment at the corner of the
street, gazing in wonderment at this provincial corner of Paris, whose
picturesqueness had so charmed Claude Larcher on the evening our story
opens. The grey clouds hung low in the wintry sky, and the bare branches
of the trees stood out drearily against them. The cries of a few
children playing at soldiers amongst the ruins at the back alone broke
the silence. The strange appearance of the peaceful little street, the
perils attending the step she was about to take, and the uncertainty of
the result, all combined to bring Suzanne's excitement to its highest
pitch, though she smiled as she thought to herself that there was no
reason for believing René to be at home unless he were hopelessly
waiting for a reply to his last letter. But when the _concierge_ had
told her that M. René was in, and had pointed out the door, her wits at
once came back to her.

Like all strong-minded women, she possessed the characteristics of a man
of action. A plain and circumscribed course of events inspired her with
determination and courage to carry out her plans. She rang the bell.
Heavy footsteps were heard approaching, and the face of Françoise
appeared in the doorway. At any other time she would have smiled at the
look of amazement which the simple maid did not even try to conceal.
Colette Rigaud had once called upon the poet to get him to make some
slight alteration in her part, and Françoise, recovering somewhat from
her surprise, no doubt thought that this was a similar visit, for
Suzanne could hear her say, as she opened the last door on the right:
'Monsieur René, there's a lady asking for you. . . . A very pretty
woman--probably some actress.'

She saw the poet come out of his room and turn as pale as death on
recognising her. She glided quietly, along the passage which Raffet's
prints had turned into a small Napoleonic museum and entered René's
room. He was obliged to get out of the way to let her pass; the door
closed, and they were alone.

'You--you here!' cried René. He could only gaze at her as she stood
before him looking so slim and elegant in the dark costume she had
chosen for this visit, for he was in that state of speechless agitation
caused by some unexpected event that suddenly raises us from the depths
of despair to the height of bliss. At such moments we are assailed by a
whirlwind of ideas and sensations that threatens to turn our brain. Our
legs give way beneath us and our hands tremble. It is happiness, and it
gives pain. René was obliged to support himself against the wall, his
eyes still fixed upon that handsome face that he had despaired of ever
seeing again. A small detail completed the madness of his joy. He
noticed that Suzanne's hands trembled a little too, and, as it happened,
her emotion was sincere.

To the passionate feelings that inspired her there was now added the
fear of displeasing the man she was resolved to win. On entering this
chamber, where she was sure no woman had ever been before her, her plan
of action was as clearly traced as plans of that kind can be. Room must
always be left for the unforeseen. Suzanne felt that with René there
would be many difficulties which with others might have been lightly and
safely glided over. His simplicity both charmed and frightened her. In
him she could rely, it was true, upon the impulse of the passions--more
daring than cool calculation--but to arouse unnoticed that impulse in
the poet when she was herself suffering its tortures was no easy matter.

Whilst he stood gazing at her after the door had closed she felt a
momentary hesitation; then, almost forgetting her plans and her part,
she threw herself upon his neck and stammered out, 'I was in such
terrible fear. Your letter frightened me so that I could not help
coming. I have had an awful struggle, and could not hold out any longer.
My God, my God! What will you think of me?'

He held her in his arms, and a thrill ran through her. Then he lifted
her lovely head and commenced to kiss her, first on her eyes, those eyes
whose sadness had so touched him as she passed him in her brougham--next
on her cheeks, those cheeks whose ideal form had so charmed him from the
first--finally on her sweet mouth, which gave his kisses back. What did
he think of her? How could any idea shape itself in his mind, absorbed
as it was by that union of the lips which is in itself complete and
intoxicating possession? What delight, too, that embrace was to Suzanne!
Through all the horrible complexities of her feminine diplomacy one
sincere desire had grown stronger and stronger within her--that of
meeting with a fresh and spontaneous, natural and thrilling passion.
This passion she found in René's breath; it stirred the very depths of
her soul and made her almost faint with emotion. Ah! this was youth,
with its complete and absolute abandonment, expressing neither thought
nor word; oblivious of all, except the immediate present; effacing all,
except the fleeting sensation whose sweetness and whose very outlines
seem to lie in a kiss.

This woman, corrupted by the influence of a Parisian cynic of fifty and
degraded by that horrible venality which has not the excuse of
necessity--this Machiavelian courtesan, who had regulated her passion
for René like a game of chess--tasted for one second that divine joy.
The punishment of those who let calculation enter into their love lies
in the remembrance of their calculation in the moment of ecstasy. Though
intoxicated by the mad kisses she had given and received, Suzanne
clearly saw that she could not abandon herself at once to her lover's
arms. She therefore broke away from him and said, 'Let me go now that I
have seen you and now that I know you are alive. I beg you to let me go.
O René!'--she had never called him by this name before--'don't come
near me!'

'Suzanne,' replied the poet, maddened by the burning nectar he had found
on those lips--the certainty of being loved--'don't be afraid of me.
When shall we have another hour like this to ourselves? Let me beg of
you to stop. See,' he added, receding still farther from her, 'I will
obey you. I obeyed you even when I found it so very hard. Ah! you
believe me now!' he exclaimed, seeing that Suzanne's face no longer
expressed such intense fear. 'Will you be very nice?' he continued, in
that playful tone which takes so well with women, and which will make
any one of them, be she a lady of high degree or a simple girl, call a
man a 'darling.' 'Sit down there in that arm-chair, where I have so
often sat at work, and then be nicer still, and try to look as though
you were not on a visit.'

He had again come closer and had forced her into the chair; then he took
away her muff and began to unbutton her coat. She submitted to this with
a sad smile, like one who yields against her will. This smile was the
death agony of the Madonna, the last act in the comedy of the Ideal
performed by Suzanne. He also took off her bonnet, a _toque_ that
matched her coat. He was now kneeling before her and gazing at her with
that look of idolatry a woman is sure to provoke in her lover if she but
give him one of those proofs of affection that flatter a man's vanity
and love--the lower passions and the higher passions of the heart. The
poet said to, himself: 'How she must love me to have come here, she whom
I know to be so pure, so pious, and so devoted to her duty!'

All the lies she had so carefully told him came back to his mind like
further proofs of her sincerity as he said: 'How delighted I am to have
you here, and just now, too! Don't be afraid--we are quite alone. My
sister has gone out for the whole afternoon, and the slave'--this was
the name he gave Françoise, in order to amuse Suzanne--'the slave is
busy in the kitchen. And I have you here! You see, this is my own little
kingdom, this room--the place in which I have endured so much! There is
not one of these corners, not one of these objects that could not tell
you what I have suffered these past few days. My poor books'--and he
pointed to his low bookcase--'were left unopened. These dear old
engravings I scarcely looked at. The pen with which I had written to you
I never touched. I sat just where you are sitting now counting the hours
as they passed. God! what a week I have spent! But what does it all
matter now that you are here and I can gaze at you? It is happiness to
me to tell you even my troubles!'

She listened with half-closed eyes, giving herself up to the music of
his words, and following out her plan in spite of the passions that
welled up within her. Does the knowledge of danger as he faces his
adversary drive from the mind of a skilful swordsman the lessons he
learnt in the school? René's assurance that they were alone in the
house had sent a thrill of joy through Suzanne, and the glance she had
thrown round the little room, so neatly and carefully kept, had proved,
to her delight and satisfaction, that she had not been mistaken
concerning her lover's past. Everything here spoke of a studious and
secluded life, the pure and noble life of an artist who surrounds
himself with an atmosphere of beautiful dreams. Above all, the poet
himself pleased her, with his love-lit eyes and the playful way in which
he treated her, and she began to see that this exchange of confidences
respecting their mutual sufferings would lead her to her goal without
the least risk of diminishing her prestige in his eyes.

'And don't you think that I have suffered too?' she replied. 'Why should
I deny it? You speak of your letters--God knows that I did not want to
read them! I kept the first one in my pocket a whole day, having neither
the courage to tear it open nor to burn it. To read your words was to
hear you speak once more, and I had determined that it should not be! I
had prayed to my guardian angel so long and so fervently for strength to
forget you. How I struggled to do so!' Here the Madonna appeared for the
last time. She lifted her eyes to heaven--or rather to the ceiling, from
which hung two or three little Japanese dolls--and in her glorious orbs
were reflected the wings of her guardian angel as he flew far, far
away. . . .

Fixing her blue eyes once more on René, she sighed in that tone of
abandonment that proves a conquered heart: 'I am lost now, but what of
that? I love you so dearly that I do not care what happens--only I
cannot bear to picture you in distress.'

Here she broke down, her bosom racked with convulsive sobs, and as the
poet tenderly kissed her tears away her head once more fell upon his
breast. She lay there for a few moments listening to the wild beating of
his heart--then, like a tired child, she entwined her arms about his
neck, and heaved a sigh of peace.



CHAPTER XIV

HAPPY DAYS


When Suzanne left the house in the Rue Coëtlogon her next meeting with
René was already arranged. After taking a few steps down the little
street she stopped and turned her head, although it would have been more
prudent to walk straight on, as she always did in the Rue du
Mont-Thabor. But so firm a hold had passion obtained upon this usually
cold-blooded woman that she smiled and waved her hand at the poet as he
stood watching her from the window of the room in which she had enjoyed
such a triumph--for all her calculations had turned out perfectly
correct. Getting into a cab at the corner of the Rue d'Assas, she drove
to the Bon Marché, where she had ordered her carriage to meet her; on
the way the details of the conversation she had had with René recurred
to her, and, going over them again, she congratulated herself upon the
manner in which she had acquitted herself. As soon as the first real
step has been taken in an intrigue of this kind the discussion of
further arrangements becomes as easy and as delightful as it was before
hateful and difficult.

Suzanne had been the first to attack this delicate question. 'I want you
to promise me something. If you do not wish me to reproach myself with
this love as with a crime, promise me that you won't go out into Society
at all. You are not accustomed to that kind of life, and you ought to be
at work. You would fritter away your magnificent talents and genius in
idle nonsense, and I should look upon myself as the cause. Promise me
that you won't go and see anyone'--and in a whisper--'any of those women
who flocked round you the other night.'

How tenderly René had kissed her for those words, in which the author
could read a tribute of devotion paid to his future work and the lover a
delicate expression of secret jealousy. He asked a little timidly,
'Mayn't I come even to your house?'

'To mine least of all,' she replied. 'I could not bear to see you touch
my husband's hand now. You know what I mean,' she added, passing her
fingers caressingly through his hair. He was sitting at her feet, while
she was still in the arm-chair. She bent forward and hid her face on
René's shoulder. 'Don't make me say any more,' she sighed; then, after
a few minutes, 'What I should like to be to you is the friend who only
enters into a man's life to bring him the sweet and noble gifts of joy
and courage, the friend who loves and is beloved in secret, away from
the mocking world that sneers at the purest feelings of the soul. I have
committed a great sin as it is'--here she hid her face in her pretty
hands--'do not let it grow into that series of base and sordid acts
which fills me with such horror in others. Spare me this, René, if you
love me as you say you do . . . But tell me, do you really love me so
much?'

In delivering herself of this pretty batch of lies she had seen in the
face of her simple and romantic victim the rapturous joy with which
these beautiful sentiments inspired him. The Madonna resumed the halo
which she had temporarily laid aside. Then, by a skilful combination of
ruse and affection, by giving to cool calculation an appearance of
tenderest susceptibility, she had led him to agree to the following
convention as being the only one befitting the poetry of her love. He
was to look out for a small suite of rooms somewhere not very far from
the Rue Murillo; he would engage them in an assumed name, and they could
meet there two, three, or four times a week. She had suggested
Batignolles, but it was so cleverly done that he almost imagined he had
hit upon it himself, as indeed upon the rest of _her_ ideas. He was to
start out the very next day, and then write to her, _poste restante_, in
certain initials, at a certain office. All these unnecessary precautions
gave René an idea of the state of slavery in which his poor angel
lived--if such an existence could be called living! 'Poor angel' he had
called her, as she gave utterance to a half-stifled complaint concerning
her husband's despotism and compared herself to a hunted animal, 'how
you must have suffered!' And she had lifted her eyes to the ceiling with
such a well-feigned expression of grief that, years afterwards, the man
for whose benefit all this was done still asked, 'Was she not sincere?'

There was, however, no need for so much theatrical display to make René
joyfully accede to the plan proposed by the clever pupil of Desforges.
Simply out of love for her he would have agreed with pleasure and
alacrity to any kind of scheme she put forward. But the programme laid
before him corresponded well with the romantic side of his nature. It
enchanted the poet to dwell upon the idea of carrying such a delightful
secret with him through life, whilst the phraseology in which Suzanne
had posed as the patron saint of his work had flattered his vanity,
dreaming as he did of reconciling art and love, of uniting indulgence of
the baser passions with that independence and solitude his work
required.

And now René, after so many days of torture, felt as though both his
mind and his heart had wings. So great was his happiness that he did not
even notice the look of pained surprise that his sister wore during the
evening that followed Suzanne's visit. What had Françoise heard? What
had she told Madame Fresneau? That the latter was deeply agitated was
very evident. The profound ignorance of certain women who are both
romantic and pure exposes them to these rude surprises. They interest
themselves in love affairs because they are women, and assist in the
establishment of relations which they believe to be as innocent as they
are themselves. Then, when they see the brutal consequences to which
these relations almost necessarily lead, their surprise is so great that
but for its cruelty it would be comical.

According to the description given her by the servant, Emilie had no
doubt as to the identity of the visitor, and the mere idea of what might
have taken place there in her house filled the staid and pious matron
with horror. Her mind involuntarily reverted to the bitter tears she had
seen on Rosalie's pale cheeks, and as she thought, first of the poor
girl, of whose sincerity she was convinced, and then of the unknown
Society lady for whom in her simplicity she had taken sides, she said to
herself, 'What if René should be mistaken in this woman?'

But she was a sister too--a sister indulgent to a fault, and, after a
feeling of uneasiness which his evident distress had caused her during
the past week, she had not the courage to trouble her brother with
reproaches on seeing him look so happy. This mixture of conflicting
sentiments prevented her from provoking any fresh confidences, and René
was become too discreet to make them. It was impossible for him to speak
of Suzanne now; what he felt for her could not be expressed in words. He
had found suitable apartments almost immediately in a quiet street in
the centre of the Batignolles quarter, just where Suzanne had wanted
them; and almost immediately, too, chance had so willed it that he was
free to devote himself to her entirely. A week had scarcely passed since
Suzanne's appearance in the Rue Coëtlogon when Claude Larcher, the only
one of the poet's friends whom he visited at all often, suddenly left
Paris. He called on René, who had neglected him a little of late, about
half-past six one evening, in travelling garb, his face pale and
agitated. The family were just sitting down to dinner.

'I have only come to bid you good-bye,' said Claude without taking a
seat; 'I am going by the nine o'clock Mont Cenis express, and I shall
have to dine at the station.'

'Shall you be away long?' asked Emilie.

'_Chi lo sa?_' replied Claude, 'as they say in that beautiful land where
I shall be to-morrow.'

'Lucky fellow!' cried Fresneau, 'to be able to go and read Virgil in his
own country instead of teaching donkeys to translate him!'

'Very lucky, indeed!' said the writer with a forced laugh; but when he
took leave of René at the gate, where his cab laden with luggage
awaited him, he burst into sobs. 'It's that beast of a Colette!' he
cried. 'You remember that day you saw her in my rooms? God! how sweet
she looked! And do you remember what she said, as I thought, in a joke?
I can't even repeat it. . . . Well, things have come to such a pass that
life for me here is unbearable, and I must be off for a time. I had no
money, so I was forced to go to a usurer who lent me some at sixty per
cent. Terrible, isn't it? What with the usurer, my old aunt in the
country, to whom I was bad enough to write, my publisher, and the editor
of the "Revue parisienne"--who, by the way, has got me to sign a
contract for copy--I have six thousand francs. As the train carries me
along every turn of the wheel will seem to go over my heart, but at any
rate I shall be getting away from her; and when she gets my letter,
written from Milan, what a grand revenge it will be!' He rubbed his
hands with joy, then, shaking his head, said, 'It has been like Heine's
ballad of Count Olaf all along. You know how he talks of love to his
betrothed while the headsman stands at the door--that headsman has
always been at the door of Colette's chamber. But when he assumed the
form of a Sappho I could bear it no longer. Good-bye, René, you will
not see me back till I am cured.' Since then there had been no news from
the unhappy fellow, of whom René generally thought when comparing the
noble woman he idolised with the savage and dangerous actress. Claude's
absence was the reason why René never put in an appearance now at the
green-room of the Théâtre Français. Why should he expose himself to
the rancour of Colette's tongue, which no doubt wagged loudly enough
when on the subject of her fugitive lover? Thanks to this absence, too,
all bonds between the poet and the world into which Larcher had
introduced him were severed.

Under the influence of his growing passion for Suzanne, the author of
the 'Sigisbée' had ignored the most elementary rules of etiquette. Not
only had he neglected to call upon the different women who had so
graciously invited him, but he had not even paid Madame Komof his duty
visit. The Comtesse, who was large-minded enough to understand the
unconventional ways of genius, and kind enough to forgive such
irregularity, said to herself, 'He was probably bored here,' and, though
not angry with him, had not asked him again. She was busy, too, for the
moment in bringing out a Russian pianist who pretended that he was in
direct communication with the soul of Chopin. René, feeling safe in
that quarter, had heard with regret that Madame Offarel was greatly
offended that neither he nor Emilie had come to the famous dinner whose
ingredients it had taken her a week to collect from all parts of Paris.
Fresneau had gone all alone.

'A fine expedition you sent me on!' he said to his wife on his return.
'When I mentioned your headache the old woman gave a grunt that almost
knocked me down, and when I told her that René was gone to see a sick
friend--a very queer excuse, by the way, but let that pass--she said,
"In some palace, I suppose!" During dinner poor Claude was the only
topic of conversation. She pulled him to pieces till he hadn't a rag on
his back. "He is an egoist and an ill-mannered fellow, he is in bad
health and has no future!"--and goodness knows what she didn't say! If
it hadn't been for a game of piquet with Offarel--and even that the sly
old fox won. Oh!--Passart was there too. Remind me about recommending
him to the Abbé for the college. He's a nice young fellow. Between you
and me, I think Rosalie rather likes him.'

Emilie could not help smiling at her husband's marvellous perspicacity.
She had often heard Madame Offarel complain of the pressing attentions
of the young drawing-master, and she immediately understood that he had
been asked at the last minute to prove that, besides René, there were
other suitors on hand. Thereupon the Offarels, who had never allowed
four days to pass without coming in after dinner, had not set foot in
the Rue Coëtlogon for a fortnight. When they at last decided to resume
their visits, at their wonted hour, they were escorted by the
aforementioned Passart, a tall, fair, gawky lad in spectacles, with a
shy look on his freckled face. Emilie saw at once that their motive in
bringing him was to arouse her brother's jealousy, and the old lady was
not long in showing her hand.

'Monsieur Offarel is engaged this evening,' she said, 'so Monsieur
Passart was kind enough to bring us. Give Monsieur Jacques that seat
near you, Rosalie.'

Poor Rosalie had not seen René since receiving his cruel message
through Emilie. In passing from the Rue Bagneux to the Rue
Coëtlogon--in reality a short, but to her an interminable distance--she
had suffered agonies, and her heart beat fast as she entered the room.
She had, however, the courage to steal a glance at her old lover, as a
kind of protest that she was not responsible for her mother's mean
calculations, and the courage also to reply coldly, as she took a seat
in a corner and placed a chair before her, 'I want this chair to put my
wool on. I'm sure Monsieur Passart won't deprive me of it.'

'There's room here,' said Emilie, coming to the poor girl's aid, and
giving the young man a seat next to herself. Rosalie firmly refused to
play the _rôle_ marked out for her, although she well knew what a
terrible scene awaited her at home. And yet it would have been so
natural if spite had inspired her with that petty mode of revenge. But
women with truly delicate feeling, who know what real love is, are
strangers to such mean spite. To inspire a fickle lover with jealousy
would horrify them simply because it would mean flirting with another,
and such a proceeding is beneath them. Such scrupulous loyalty in spite
of all is a touching proof of love, and one which ensures a woman a
place in a man's regrets for ever.

For ever! But as far as regards the present hour and the immediate
result, these loyal hearts get left far behind, and the flirts win. When
the years have fled, and the lover, grown old, shall institute
comparisons, he will understand the unique position held by her who
would not cause him pain--even to win him back. Meanwhile he runs after
the jades who make him drink the bitter cup of that degrading but
intoxicating passion, jealousy. It is only fair to René to say that, in
sacrificing Rosalie for Suzanne, he believed that he was acting in the
interests of true love. When, next morning, his sister praised the
girl's noble behaviour, he was quite sincere too in his reply, smacking
as it did, though, of naïve self-conceit.

'What a pity that such fine feeling should be wasted!'

'Yes,' repeated Emilie with a sigh, 'what a pity!'

Had René had a thought for aught else than his love, the tone in which
his sister had uttered these words would no doubt have revealed to him
the change that her opinions had undergone with regard to Madame
Moraines. His love, however, entirely absorbed him. His days were now
parcelled out into two kinds--those on which he was to meet Suzanne and
those which he was to spend without seeing her. The latter, which were
by far the more numerous, were passed in the following manner. A great
part of the morning he spent in bed, dreaming, for he was already
beginning to feel a diminution of vital energy. Then he bestowed much
time upon his toilet, lavishing such attention on details as would
convince a woman of experience that a young man was beloved. His toilet
finished, he wrote to his Madonna. She had imposed upon him the sweet
task of sending her an account of all his thoughts day by day. As for
herself, he had not a line of her writing. She had said, 'I am so
watched, and never alone!' And he pitied her as he devoted himself to
compiling the detailed diary that she had demanded.

This pose of a sentimental Narcissus gazing incessantly upon himself and
his love was well in keeping with that deep-rooted vanity which he
possessed in common with nearly all writers. Suzanne had not
sufficiently reflected upon the anomalous nature of a man of letters to
have taken vanity into account. It pleased her to read René's words
when he was not there simply as a burning reminder of the kisses they
had exchanged. When the poet had paid his morning devotions to his
divinity in this fashion it was time for lunch. Immediately after that
he would go to the Bibliothèque in the Rue de Richelieu and work
unremittingly at the notes for his 'Savonarola,' which he had again
taken up, during the whole of the afternoon, and sometimes right on into
the evening. He worked now without ever having, as in writing the
'Sigisbée,' those flashes of talent which pass from the brain to the
pen, charging the memory with a flow of words and drawing the images
with such precision and life-like resemblance that the effort of
production becomes a strong but delightful intoxication that ends in a
state of agreeable exhaustion.

To build up the scenes of the drama he was now writing, René had to
keep his mind in a painful state of tension, and at a worse tension
still to turn his prose sketches into verse. His brain no longer served
him in making happy finds. For this there were several important and
distinct reasons. The first--a physical one--was the waste of vital
energy inseparable from all reciprocated passions; the second--a moral
one--the constant hold that Suzanne had upon his mind and the inability
to entirely forget her; the last--an intellectual and secret one, though
most powerful--was the deadening influence which success exercises upon
the greatest genius.

Whilst conceiving and writing he was beginning to think of the public.
He saw before him the house on the first night, the critics in their
stalls, the fashionable people scattered here and there, and, seated in
a box, Madame Moraines. He already heard the shouts of applause, as
demoralising for a dramatic author as the number of editions is for a
novelist. The desire to produce a certain effect took the place of that
disinterested, natural, and irresistible impulse which is a necessary
condition in true art. Still too young to possess the skill with which
literary veterans can write impassioned phrases in cold blood, and even
well enough to deceive the best critics, René sought in himself that
source of ideas which he no longer found. His play would not take shape
in his mind in a natural and easy way. The goat-like features of the
Florentine monk and the tragic figures of the terrible pontiff Alexander
VI., the violent Michael Angelo, the sour Machiavelli, and the
formidable Cæsar Borgia would not clothe themselves in flesh and blood
before his eyes, in spite of the heaps of notes and documents he had
collected and the pages erased again and again. Frequently he would lay
down his pen and gaze up at the blue sky through the lace curtains of
his window; he would listen to the noises in the house--the closing of a
door, Constant playing, Françoise grumbling, Emilie passing quietly,
Fresneau walking heavily--and then find himself counting how many hours
he had still to wait before seeing Suzanne.

'How I love her! How I love her!' he would exclaim, increasing his
passion by the fervour with which he uttered these words. Again, he
would delight in conjuring up a vision of the room in which these
meetings, awaited with such feverish impatience, took place. He had been
more lucky in finding a suitable place than his inexperience had led
Suzanne to expect, It was a small suite consisting of three rooms,
rather prettily furnished by Malvina Raulet, a brunette of about
thirty-five, whose sweet voice, demure looks, and general air of
propriety had at once enchanted René. This lady, whose attire was
almost severe in its simplicity, gave herself out as a widow. She lived
ostensibly on a small income left her by the late M. Raulet, an
imaginary individual whose profession she defined in a vague way by
saying that 'he was in business.' As a matter of fact, the shrewd and
cunning landlady had never been married. She was, for the moment, being
'protected' by a respectable physician--a well-known man and the father
of a family--whom she had so thoroughly taken in by her fine manners
that she managed to get five hundred francs a month out of him,
regularly paid on the first, like the salary of a Civil Servant.

Being before all else a thrifty soul, she had conceived the idea of
increasing her monthly income by letting out three of the rooms she did
not want, and as there were two doors to her flat she was able to give
this small suite a separate entrance. The almost elegant furniture it
contained had come to her as a weird inheritance. For ten years she had
been the mistress of a madman, whose family, desiring for some reason to
keep this insanity secret, had paid her well. Upon her unhappy lover's
death, Malvina had, according to promise, received twenty thousand
francs and the contents of the house in which she had played such a
strange part. This woman's dark and hideous past René was never to
know. In that gay city, where clandestine attachments abound, how many
of the thoughtless youths who hire such places know aught of the history
of those who pander to their wants? Nor could the poet think for one
moment that this woman with the irreproachable manners had seen right
through his demands at the first glance. He had told her that he lived
in Versailles, and that he was obliged to come to Paris two or three
times a week. The name he gave her was that of his favourite hero--the
paradoxical d'Albert in 'Mademoiselle de Maupin;' but as he wrote it at
the bottom of the agreement which the careful Madame Raulet got him to
sign, he placed his hat on the table, and there the crafty landlady
could plainly read the real initials of her new lodger.

'If you would like my servant to undertake the cleaning of the rooms,'
she said, 'it will be fifty francs a month extra.'

This exorbitant demand was made in such a cool tone, and Madame Raulet,
moreover, looked so thoroughly respectable, that René dared not discuss
the amount. He could, however, not help eyeing her somewhat
distrustfully. Her appearance, it was true, disarmed all suspicion. She
wore a dark dress, well but simply made. Round her neck hung one of
those long gold chains so much worn at one time by the French
_bourgeoisie_--a chain which had no doubt once belonged to her sainted
mother. She wore her watch in her belt; a brooch containing a lock of
white hair--that of a beloved father, most probably--fastened her neat
lace collar, and through the meshes of the silk mittens that covered her
long hands might be seen her wedding ring.

As René was leaving, this virtuous creature remarked, 'The house is a
very quiet one, sir. You are a young man,' she added with a smile, 'and
you will not be offended if I make so bold as to say that the least
noise on the stairs at night, or anything like that, would be sufficient
reason for my asking you to leave.'

René felt himself blush as she spoke. In his excessive simplicity he
feared lest the worthy widow might give him notice after his first
meeting there with Suzanne. This ridiculous fear impelled him to visit
his landlady immediately Madame Moraines had gone under pretence of
speaking to her about some trifling matter he wanted done. She received
him with the polite air of a woman who knows nothing, understands
nothing, and has seen nothing, although she had been watching Suzanne's
departure from her window, and had, with the practised eye of a
Parisian, taken that lady's measure at a glance. Malvina now saw through
it all--her lodger's visitor was a woman in the first ranks of Society,
but he himself, although well dressed, showed by the cut of his beard,
his hair, his walk and his whole appearance that he belonged to a lower
station in life. The landlady thought that most probably the rent would
be paid by the mistress, and not by the lover, and she regretted not
having asked more than five hundred francs a month besides the fifty for
attendance. The whole of the flat cost her fourteen hundred francs a
year, and she paid her maid-of-all-work forty-five francs! No matter,
she would make up for it in the extras--in the firing, the washing, and
especially in the meals, if ever the young man asked her to provide
lunch, as she had offered to do.

'She is an excellent woman, and very attentive,' said René, when
Suzanne questioned him about Madame Raulet. Was the poet wrong in being
so trustful? Of what use would it have been to indulge, as Claude would
have done, in a pessimistic analysis of this woman's character, except
to conjure up thoughts of blackmail and other dangers, all entirely
imaginary, as it happened? For although Malvina was far from being a
saint, she was at the same time a _bourgeoise_ who had a sincere
hankering after respectability, and who proposed, as soon as she had
made her little pile, to return to her native town of Tournon, and lead
a life of absolute purity. The fear of seeing her name figure in the
report of some evil-smelling case was sufficient to deter her from
practising any pronounced form of imposition. So far did her love of
respectability carry her that she wove a complicated web of falsehoods
to the _concierge_ about her new lodger. She made out that Suzanne and
René were a happy couple who lived in the country all the year round,
and that they were distantly related to the late M. Raulet. Then, in
order that he should have nothing whatever to do with the said
_concierge_, she herself handed René two keys even before he had asked
for them.

What cared the poet for the real cause of her attentiveness? The young
have sense enough not to go into facts which lend themselves to the
gratification of their desires. This system sometimes leads them along
perilous paths, but they cull many a flower by the wayside and enjoy its
fragrance, nevertheless. When the poet walked across half Paris to reach
his little suite in the Rue des Dames there was a music in his heart
that shut out all dissonant voices of suspicion. His meetings with
Suzanne were generally in the morning. René had never asked himself why
that time of the day was most convenient to his beloved. As a matter of
fact it was the hour when she was most certain of escaping the
watchfulness of Desforges. In the forenoon the hygienic Baron devoted
himself to what was dearest to him on earth--his health. First he had a
bout of fencing, which he called his 'dose of exercise'; then he
galloped through the Bois, which was his 'air cure'; lastly he 'burnt
his acid,' a formula he owed to Doctor Noirot.

The double Madonna, who had studied her man thoroughly, knew that he was
as much a slave to these rules of health as Paul was to those of his
office. She therefore felt a secret pleasure in thinking of her husband
seated at his desk, of her 'excellent friend' bestriding an English
mare, and of her René entering a florist's to buy some flowers
wherewith to adorn the chapel of their love. Roses were his usual
choice, roses red as his darling's lips, roses fair as her blushing
cheeks, fresh and living blooms that filled the air with their sweet and
penetrating perfume. As she was borne towards the harbour of their love
she knew that René would be standing at the window listening to the
rattle of the cabs as they passed. How delighted he would be when hers
stopped before the house! She would ascend the stairs, and there he
would be waiting for her, having softly opened the door so as not to
lose one second of her sweet presence. Then he would hold her in his
arms devouring her with silent kisses that pierced the black lace veil
as they sought her fresh and mobile lips.

Suzanne's great triumph consisted in her ability to preserve her
innocent Madonna-like expression amidst all the madness of their love;
and, by a singular dispensation of nature, too, this strange creature
was entirely devoid of all sense of remorse. She belonged, no doubt by
heredity, being the daughter of a statesman, to the great race of active
beings whose dominant trait is a faculty for distributing their
energies. These beings have the power to make the most of the present
without allowing themselves to be troubled either by the past or the
future. In modern slang we find a pretty phrase to express this power of
temporary oblivion--it is called 'cutting the cord.' Suzanne had
parcelled out her life into three parts--one belonging to Paul, one to
Desforges, and one to René. During the time she devoted to each there
was such absolute suspension of the rest of her existence that she would
have had some difficulty in realising the extent of her duplicity had
she cared to probe her conscience--a proceeding she never dreamt of
whilst the opium of pleasure coursed through her brain. She generally
remained with René till about twelve o'clock, and when she was gone
Madame Raulet would send up his lunch; and he would stay in the rooms
for the rest of the day, ostensibly to work, for he had some of his
papers there, but really to gloat over the reminiscences that floated in
the very air he breathed. When night was beginning to fall he would wend
his way homewards, under the twinkling gas lamps that illumined his
route, possessed by a divine languor that seemed to combine and blend
into one harmonious whole all the delights of the day.



CHAPTER XV

COLETTE'S SPITE


This delightful existence had been going on for about two months with
nothing to break its sweet monotony but the pain of parting and the joy
of meeting when, one morning, just as René was about to proceed to the
Rue des Dames, Françoise handed him a letter that made him start, for
on it he recognised Claude Larcher's handwriting. By calling at
Larcher's rooms René had learnt from Ferdinand that the writer had
stopped at Florence and then at Pisa. He had even sent him a letter to
each of these towns addressed _poste restante_, but had received no
reply. He saw by the postmark that Claude was now in Venice, and with
feelings of intense curiosity he tore open the envelope, reading the
contents as he strolled down to the river through the quiet suburban
streets on this fair spring morn that was as fresh and bright as his own
love.


'Venice, Palais Dario: April, 1879.

'My DEAR RENÉ,--I am writing you these lines from your Venice--from
that Venice whence you evoked the cruel features of your Cœlia and the
sweet face of your Beatrice; and as this fairy-like city is, as it
always was, the land of improbabilities, the city of the Undines, which
on these Eastern shores are called sirens, I have, like Byron,
discovered a small furnished suite in a most delightful little palace on
the Grand Canal, a _palazzino_ with marble medallions on its façade,
all ornamented, carved, and engraved, and leaning as badly as I do on my
bad days. As I scribble this letter I have the blue waters of the Canal
Grande under my window and around me the peace of this great city--the
Cora Pearl of the Adriatic, a wretched play-writer would say--like the
silence of a dream. My dear fellow, why have I brought my battered old
heart here of all places--here, where I feel it beat louder and stronger
in the sweet stillness? I must tell you that it is two o'clock, that I
have just breakfasted at Florian's under the arcades after having been
to San Giorgio in Bragora to look at a divine Cima, that I am to dine
to-night with two ladies directly descended from the Doges--fair as the
creations of Veronese--and some Russians as amusing as our friend
Beyle's Korazoff, and that, instead of feeling elated, I have come home
to look at Her Portrait--with a capital H and a capital P--the portrait
of Colette! René, René, why am I not seated in my stall at the
Théâtre Français, gazing at her as Camille in "On ne badine pas avec
l'amour"--a divine play, as bitter as "Adolphe," yet as sweet as the
music of Mozart? Do you remember her smile as she holds her pretty head
on one side and says, "Are you sure that a woman lies with all her soul
when her tongue lies?" Do you remember Perdican and these words: "Pride,
thou most fatal of human counsellors, why art thou come between this
maid and me?" All my story--all our story lies in those few words. Only
it happens that I am the real Perdican of the play, having in my soul
that source of idealism and love, ever flowing in spite of experience,
ever pure in spite of so many sins! And she, my Camille, has been
stained by so much shame that nought can wash her clean! Alas! how sadly
the world treated my flower--when I wished to inhale its fragrance I
found instead a smell as of the grave.

'Come, come, it was not to write you such stuff that I sat down before
my balcony, through the carving of which I can see the gondolas pass.
They glide and slant and turn about, looking so pretty with their slim,
funereal shapes. If each of these floating biers carried away one of my
dead dreams, what an interminable procession there would be on the
dreary waters! Would that I were an etcher! I know what Dance of Death I
would engrave--a flight of these black barques in the twilight, with
white skeletons as gondoliers at the prow and poop, and a row of ruined
palaces for a background. Under it I should write: "Such is my heart!"
After a youth more down-trodden than the grapes in the wine-tubs, and
when I had just emerged from the miserable drudgery of my profession, it
was this horrible slavery of love that stared me in the face--this love
with its basis of hatred and contempt! Why, just Heaven!--why? Who could
have guessed on that July evening when this madness began that I was
entering upon one of the most solemn periods of my life? I had been
dining alone after a hard day's work, and, in order to get a little
fresh air and pass the time until ten o'clock, I was just strolling
wherever my fancy took me, gazing idly at the passers-by. What invisible
demon led my steps to the Comédie Française? Why did I go up into the
green-room, where I had not been for months, to shake hands with old
Farguet, about whom I did not care a rap? Why had I such a ready flow of
wit and such brilliant repartee at my command at that very moment--I
who, at fashionable dinners, had frequently found myself as dumb as the
carp _à la Chambord_ on the dish? Why was Colette there in that
adorable costume that belongs to the old _répertoire_? She was playing
Rosine in the "Barber of Seville," and I went to the front to hear her
sing the air, "When Love brings us spring again." Why did she look at me
as she sang it, and show such real emotion that I dared scarcely believe
it was meant for me? Why had she those lips, those eyes, that face on
which might be read the sufferings of a conquered Psyche, a prey to
love? How passionately we loved each other from that very first evening!
And it was only the second time we had met. Can you understand how I was
mad enough to expect fidelity from a girl who had thrown herself at me
in that fashion? As soon as I got back behind the scenes she invited me
into her dressing-room, and before we had been there a quarter of an
hour her lips were pressed to mine in most painful ecstasy. Fool that I
was! I ought to have taken her for what she was--a charming
courtesan--and remembered that women are just the same to others as they
are to us. Instead of which--

'Let us leave this road, my dear René, for I perceive a finger-post on
which is written "To despair," like the posts in that forest of
Fontainebleau where I took her one summer morning in a dog-cart drawn by
a black horse named Cerberus. I can see the horse now, with a fox-tail
hanging down over his forehead, and my Colette beside me, looking pale,
but so beautiful. When was she not beautiful to me? But let us leave, I
say, this fatal road, and come to the present, of which I owe you an
account, since you have been good enough to write me several such nice
letters. When I left you in the Rue Coëtlogon and hied me off to
Italy--it sounds like a song!--I wanted to see whether I could do
without her. Well, the experiment has been made--and has failed. I
cannot. I have argued with myself, and I have struggled long and hard.
Since my departure I have got up not ten--but twenty, thirty times, and
sworn not to think of her during the whole of that day. It's all right
for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour even. But at the end of that
time I see her again. I see her eyes and her mouth, I see those gestures
I have seen in none other--the pretty way she had, for instance, of
laying her head on my shoulder when I held her in my arms, and then,
wherever I may be, I am obliged to stop and lean against a wall, so
sharp is the pain that pierces my heart. Would you believe that I had to
leave Florence because I spent my time in the "Uffizi" before
Botticelli's "Madonna Incoronata," a photo of which you have seen in my
rooms? I have sometimes taken a cab from the other end of the town in
order to reach the gallery before closing time, so that I might gaze
upon the canvas once more. The angel on the right, the one that lifts
the curtain, is the very image of her, and wears that look which has so
often made me pity Colette and bewail her misfortune when I ought to
have killed her.

'So I left Florence and came to Pisa, the dead city whose sweet silence
had enchanted me in days gone by. I had taken an immense fancy to the
square in which stand the Dome, the Baptistery, and the Belfry, with a
cemetery wall and the remains of a battlemented rampart to enclose it.
Then there was the shore of the Gombo two hours distant--a sandy desert
among the pines--and the yellow Arno flowing sluggishly by! My room
looked out upon the dreary river, but it was full of sunshine, warm and
clear, and I had come there filled with a glorious plan. An old maxim of
Goethe had come into my mind, "Poetry is deliverance!" "I will try it,"
I said to myself, and I swore not to leave Pisa before I had turned my
grief into literature. Perhaps, in making bubbles out of the tears I had
already shed, I might forget to shed fresh ones. These bubbles grew into
a story which I called _Analysis._ You have no doubt read it in the
_Revue parisienne._ Don't you think it as good as anything I have done?
As you see, it is the whole story of my sad love; every detail is
absolutely correct, from the episode of the letter to my jealousy of the
Sapphos. What do you think of Colette--isn't she well drawn? And of me?
Alas! my dear fellow, would that I had obtained peace of mind by
besmirching the image of her I have so loved, by dragging in the dirt
the idol once adorned with freshest roses, by dishonouring the dear past
with all the strength at my command! Hear the result of this noble
effort--I had no sooner posted the manuscript of this story than I went
home and wrote to Colette asking her to forgive me. An excellent joke,
this maxim of Goethe--a sublime Philistine and a Jupiter, as they used
to style him! I have plunged a pen into my wound to use my blood for
ink, and I have only poisoned myself afresh. If I am to be cured at all,
time is the only thing that will cure me. But, after all, why be cured?

'Yes, why? I have been proud--I am proud no longer. I have struggled
against the passion that abased me--I will struggle no more. If I had
the cancer in my cheek, should I be ashamed of it? Well, I have a cancer
in my soul, and make no attempt to check its growth. Listen to the end
of my story. Colette did not answer my letter. Could I expect her to be
kind to me after my behaviour? I had already begun to humble myself by
writing to her. I went on doing so. Then I commenced to feel such
delight as I had never felt before--that of degrading myself before her,
of letting her trample upon my manly dignity. I wrote to her a second, a
third, a fourth time.

'My novel appeared, and I wrote to her again--letters in which I
delighted in humbling myself, letters that she might show about and say:
"He has left me, he insults me, and yet see how he loves me!" Should not
those very insults have proved to her how much I loved her? You don't
know her, René; you don't know how proud she is, in spite of all her
faults. What pain that wretched novel must have caused her I scarcely
dare to think, and that, too, is why I dare not come back. In my present
state of mind I could not possibly face a scene such as we used to have,
and to live longer without her is equally beyond me. I have therefore
decided, my dear René, to ask you to go and speak to her. I know that
she has always liked you, and that she is really grateful to you for the
pretty _rôle_ you wrote her. I know that she will believe you when you
say to her, "Claude can stand it no longer--have pity on him." Tell her,
too, René, that she need have no fear of my horrible temper. The
rebellious Larcher she could not bear exists no longer. To be near her,
to live in her shadow, to have her near me, I will tolerate all,
all--you understand. Our last months together were not all honey, it is
true, but what a paradise they were compared with this Inferno of
absence! And we had our happy hours, too--those afternoons we spent
together in her rooms in the Rue de Rivoli, overlooking the gardens of
the Tuileries. The bustle of the great city went on around us as I held
my darling pressed to my heart. See how my hand trembles only to think
of it! If I have ever done you a service in the past, as you say I have,
be my friend now and call on her, show her this letter, speak to her,
appeal to her heart. Ask her to say that she forgives me and that I may
come back to her. Good-bye. I await your reply in agony, and you know
what torture that machine is capable of suffering which calls itself
your old friend.

'C. L.

'P.S.--Go to the _Revue_ office and ask for five copies of my story; I
can get rid of them here.'


'How like him!' said René, after having read this strange epistle,
which was nothing but a bundle of the different elements that made up
Claude's composite personality. Childish sincerity wedded to a taste for
dramatic display; a love of posing even when suffering bitter anguish;
most susceptible professional vanity and an absolute lack of all
pretensions; profound self-knowledge and total inability to govern
himself--all this was there. 'I shall go to the theatre to-night if
Colette is playing,' said René to himself. He bought a paper and saw
her name in the list for that evening. 'But,' he thought, 'how will she
receive me?'

He was so interested in what would happen and so moved by his dear
friend's grief that he could not help telling Suzanne all about it as
soon as he reached the trysting-place. He even gave her the letter to
read, and as she handed it back to him she said: 'Poor fellow!' adding,
in an indifferent tone, 'Haven't you really ever mentioned me when
talking together?'

'Yes, once, quite casually,' replied René, with some hesitation. Since
he had become Suzanne's lover he had never forgiven himself for the
question he had put to Claude about her--the unfortunate question which
had drawn down upon him the sarcasm of his friend.

Suzanne mistook the cause of his hesitation and returned to the charge.
'I am sure that he said something nasty about me?'

'Indeed, he didn't,' replied René, in a tone of assurance. He was too
well acquainted with the play of Suzanne's face not to have remarked the
look of anxiety in her eyes as she put her second question, and he, in
his turn, now asked: 'How you distrust him! Why?'

'Why?' she repeated with a smile; 'because I love you so dearly, René,
and men are so bad.' Then, wishing to entirely destroy the effect that
her excessive distrust might have produced in the poet, she added, 'You
must go and see Mademoiselle Rigaud.'

'Certainly I must,' said René; 'I intend going to-night And you?' he
asked, as he often did, 'how are you going to spend your evening?'

'I am going to the theatre, too,' she replied; 'but not behind the
scenes. My husband wants to take me to the Gymnase. Why do you put me in
mind of it? I shall be quite miserable enough when I'm there all alone
with him. . . Come, give me a nice kiss.'

That voice, sweet as the sweetest music, was still in the poet's ears,
and his soul was still troubled by those kisses, more intoxicating than
strong drink, when about nine that night he entered the stage door of
the Théâtre Français in order to reach the celebrated green-room. He
cast a glance round the doorkeeper's lodge, remembering that the room
had been one of the stations in Claude's Calvary. Frequently, when
entering the theatre together, Larcher would say to his friend as he
pointed to the pigeon-hole that contained Colette's letters: 'If I stole
them I should perhaps know the truth.'

'How happy I am,' thought René, 'not to know that terrible malady
called suspicion!' And he smiled as he ascended the staircase, whose
walls are covered with the portraits of actors and actresses of a bygone
age. There, fixed on the canvas, are the grinning faces of past
Scapins--there the Célimènes, who lived and loved long years ago,
still smile down upon us. These reminders of mirth for ever vanished, of
passions for ever stilled, of once happy generations for ever gone, have
something strangely sad about them for the dreamers who feel their life,
like all life, slipping away, and who realise the brevity of human joys.

Often had René experienced this feeling of vague sadness; it came over
him again now, in spite of himself, and made him hasten to the
green-room, expecting to find a good many acquaintances there with whom
he might exchange a few words of greeting. But he found the place
entirely given up to two actors in Louis XIV. costumes, their heads
adorned with enormous wigs, their legs incased in red stockings, and
their feet cramped in high-heeled shoes. They were engaged in a
political argument, and took no notice of the poet, who heard one of
them, a long, thin, bilious-looking creature, say to the other, a round,
red-faced individual, 'All the misfortunes of our country arise from the
fact that people do not take sufficient interest in politics.'

'What a pity Larcher isn't here!' thought René as he caught these
words; he knew what pleasure they would have given his friend, the
exclamation that would have escaped him--'This is grand!'--and how he
would have clapped his hands with delight. Everything in this part of
the theatre reminded him of Claude, who had so often accompanied him
there. They had sat together in the little green-room, now empty.
Together they had descended the few steps that lead behind the scenes,
and, slipping in between the properties, had mingled with the actors and
actresses standing in the narrow passage waiting for their calls.

Colette was not there, and René determined to go up the steep staircase
and along the interminable corridors lined with private dressing-rooms.
He at length reached the door that bore the name of Mademoiselle Rigaud;
he knocked, feebly at first, but conversation was probably going on
inside, and he was not heard. He had to knock louder. 'Come in!' cried a
shrill voice, which he recognised; it was the same that could make
itself so sweet to recite:


If kisses for kisses the roses could pay . . .


On opening the door the visitor entered a tiny ante-room, which
communicated with a tiny dressing-room. René lifted the
gilt-embroidered curtain of black satin that divided the two miniature
apartments, and found himself in an atmosphere overheated by the lamps
and the presence of six people; five of these were men, two in evening
dress being evidently 'swells,' and the other three friends of the
actress of a slightly inferior order. One of the two black-coated
gentlemen was Salvaney, but he did not recognise René. He and his
friend were the only two who were seated. The ottoman on which they sat
had been recovered with an old Chinese dress of pink satin; it was
Claude who had given Colette that dress, and who, in the heyday of their
love, had presided over the arrangement of the whole dressing-room. He
had ransacked Paris to collect the panels set in bamboo frames which
adorned the walls. Three of these panels bore figures of Chinese women
painted on pale silk. The widest, which, like the heavy curtain, was of
black satin, represented a flight of white birds amidst peach blossoms
and lilies of the valley. Bright-coloured fans and bunches of peacock's
feathers distributed here and there, and a great gilt dragon with
enamelled eyes suspended from the ceiling, helped to give this pretty
little cabin an air of charming originality.

Colette, with her hair all undone and her bare arms emerging from the
wide sleeves of a loose bright blue dressing-gown, was 'making up' under
the gaze of the five men. Before her, on the dressing-table, stood a
whole row of pots filled with different salves. There were other pots,
containing white, yellow, and pink powder, and a few saucers filled with
long 'tragedy' pins, while hare's feet covered with paint, enormous
powder puffs, black pencils, and small sponges lay scattered all about.
The actress could see who entered by looking in the large glass before
her. Recognising the author of the 'Sigisbée,' she half turned and
showed him her hands covered with vaseline as an apology for not
offering him one, and by the look she gave him René understood how
prudent Claude had been in not coming back without some previous
understanding.

'Good evening!' she cried. 'Why, I thought you were dead, but I see by
your face that you've only had an excess of happiness. I'm playing you
to-morrow, you know. Sit down, if you can find room.' And before René
had time to reply she turned to Salvaney, saying: 'Well, I will if you
like. Come for me to-morrow at twelve. Aline will be there, and we'll go
and have lunch together first.'

Having uttered these words, she darted another look at René. The lines
of her mouth deepened, and her charming face suddenly assumed an
expression of intense cruelty. The words had really been hurled in
defiance at Claude through his most intimate friend. This friend would
certainly repeat them to the jealous lover. It was just as if she had
shouted through space to the man whom she could not forget in spite of
his flight and his insults: 'You are not here, and so I do exactly what
will cause you most pain.'

She then exchanged a few words with the other visitors, recommending
some poor fellow in whom she was interested to one, importuning another
for the insertion of a complimentary notice in some paper, returning to
Salvaney to ask him for a tip for the next races, until at last, having
wiped her hands, she rose and said, 'And now, my dear fellows, it is
very kind of you to stay, but'--pointing to the door--'I am going to
dress, so you must go. No, not you,' she went on, speaking to René, and
not minding the others, 'I want to talk to you for a minute.' As soon as
they were alone, and she was again seated before the glass pencilling
her eyebrows, she asked, 'Have you read Claude's infamous work?'

'No,' replied René, 'but I have received a letter from him; he is
terribly unhappy.'

'Oh! haven't you read it?' cried Colette, interrupting him. 'Well, read
it! You will see what a cad your friend is!' Crossing her arms, she
turned to face the poet, the angry glitter in her eyes intensified by
their painted rings and by the artificial pallor of her cheeks. 'Tell
me, is it right for a man to insult a woman? What have I done to this
gentleman? I refused to slavishly obey his whims, to cut off all my
friends, and lead the life of a dog! Did he imagine that I was his wife?
Did he keep me? Did I ask him for an account of what he did? And even if
I had been in the wrong, was that why he must go and tell the public all
the lies he can invent about me? He's a cad, I tell you--a low cad! You
can write and tell him so from me, and tell him that I shall spit in his
face when I see him! Your fine gentleman treated me like a drab, did he?
Well, he shall find out how the drab takes her revenge! Not yet,
Mélanie,' she said, as the dresser came in, 'I'll call you in a quarter
of an hour.'

'But if he did not love you,' replied René, taking advantage of this
interruption, 'he would not carry on in this fashion. He is maddened by
grief.'

'Oh! don't come to me with such rubbish,' cried Colette, shrugging her
shoulders and again setting to work on her eyebrows; 'do you think that
creature has got a heart? And he's no friend of yours, my dear fellow.
If you had heard him making fun of your love affairs you would know what
to think of him.'

'Of my love affairs?' repeated René, in blank astonishment.

'Come, come,' said the actress, with a nasty laugh, 'it's no use trying
to bluff me; but when you want a confidant, choose a better one than
your friend Monsieur Larcher?'

'I don't understand you,' replied the poet, his heart beating fast; 'I
have never made a confidant of him.'

'Then he must have invented the story of your being in love with Madame
Moraines, that pretty, fair woman, the mistress of old Desforges. Well,
that beats all!' exclaimed the cruel actress, with the bitter and
ironical laugh of a creature whose pride has been deeply wounded. The
unhappy Claude, who in his tender moments forgot what he thought of
Colette in his lucid ones, had simply said to her on the morrow of
René's visit, 'Poor Vincy is in love.' 'With whom?' she had asked. And
he had told her.

Colette was well acquainted with the rumours that were afloat concerning
Suzanne and the Baron, thanks to the habit most fast men have of
retailing Society scandal, be it true or not, to the _demi-mondaines_
whom they frequent. In alluding to René's love affair with Madame
Moraines, the actress, beside herself with passion, had spoken almost at
random, in order to lower Larcher in his friend's esteem. Seeing the
effect that her words had produced on the latter, she continued the
theme. To torture the man she had before her, and in whose features she
could read the suffering she caused, was to satisfy to a certain extent
her thirst for revenge against the other, knowing, as she did, how dear
the poet was to Claude.

'Claude did not tell you that,' cried René, excitedly, 'and if he were
here he would forbid you to slander a woman whom he knows to be worthy
of your respect.'

'Of my respect!' repeated Colette, with a shrill, nervous laugh. 'What
do you take me for, my dear fellow? Of my respect! Because she has a
husband to hide her shame and help her spend the old man's money? Of my
respect! Because she wants a higher wage than the girl in the street who
hasn't the price of a dinner? Do you believe in them, these Society
women? And look here,' she cried, rising in her fury and betraying her
low extraction by the way in which she jerked her head and blinked her
eyes, 'if you don't like me telling you that she is your mistress and
the Baron's too, go and fight it out with Claude. It'll furnish my fine
gentleman with copy. Are you beginning to have the same opinion about
him as I have? Between you and me, my boy--just you keep your eyes open.
Worthy of my respect! Ha! ha! ha! No--that's a bit too thick. Well,
good-bye. This time I am going to dress in earnest. Mélanie!' she
cried, opening the door, 'Mélanie! Give Claude my compliments,' she
added, as a parting shot, 'and tell him that trifling with Colette is as
dangerous as trifling with love.'

With this allusion to the play so enthusiastically mentioned by Claude
in his letter, she pushed René out of her room, and as she closed the
door broke out once more into silvery but cruel, mocking
laughter--laughter that was a strange mixture of affectation and hatred,
of a courtesan's nonchalance and the vengeance of a slighted mistress.



CHAPTER XVI

THE STORY OF A SUSPICION


'What a wicked woman! What a wicked woman!' muttered René as he went
down the staircase, now re-echoing with the shouts of the call-boy. He
trembled with agitation and asked himself, 'What harm have I ever done
her?' forgetting that for a quarter of an hour he had represented Claude
in Colette's eyes. Perhaps the joy felt by the actress in wounding him
to the quick might have had its rise in the malice often occasioned by a
man's unwillingness to pay his friend's mistress attentions. The loyalty
of one man to another ranks amongst the sentiments most odious to women.

'What have I done to her?' repeated the poet, unable to find an answer
to his question, unable even to collect his thoughts. There are phrases
which, flung at us unexpectedly, will stun us as surely as any blow
physically dealt. They bring about a sudden cessation of all
consciousness--a cessation even of pain. René was not quite himself
again until he stood in the Place du Palais Royal amid its throng of
traffic. The first feeling that animated him was a fit of furious rage
against Claude. 'The perfidious wretch!' he cried; 'how could he trust
my secret to a creature like that? And such a secret, too! What did he
know about it?' A slight blush and a moment's hesitation in uttering her
name. 'He thinks that is sufficient evidence upon which to slander a
woman he hardly knows, and in the ears, too, of a hussy whose infamy he
proclaims from the housetops!'

He recalled to mind every detail of the only conversation in which
Larcher might have discovered his nascent feelings for Suzanne. He saw
himself once more in Claude's rooms in the Rue de Varenne, with the
manuscripts and proofs strewn about, and the writer's face looking livid
in the greenish light of the stained-glass windows. He saw the sceptical
smile flit across that face whilst the sarcastic lips uttered the words:
'So you are not in love with her!' Borne on the same wave of memory came
other visions connected with the last. He heard Suzanne's voice saying
on the occasion of his third visit: 'Your friend M. Larcher--I am sure
he doesn't like me.' Had she not expressed her distrust of him only that
morning? Her suspicions had, indeed, been only too well justified. And
then if he had only contented himself with coupling her name with his,
René's. But he had even dared to make this other vile accusation--that
she was kept by Desforges! Not that René harboured the least shadow of
a suspicion against his divine mistress--it was not that which maddened
him--but the knowledge that Colette had not lied in claiming to have
heard this infamous thing from Larcher. If Larcher repeated it, he must
have got it from some one else. And if Suzanne had insisted, as she had
twice done, upon being told how Claude spoke of her, it was because she
knew she was exposed to the insult of this abominable calumny.

René remembered the old beau whom he had once met at her house, with
his military bearing, his red, bloated face, and his grey hair. And then
he saw her as she had looked only that morning, so fair, so white, so
dainty--with her pale blue eyes and that peculiar air of refinement that
lent an almost ideal charm to her most passionate embraces. Was it
possible that such vile calumnies could have been spread concerning this
woman! 'People are too horribly wicked!' exclaimed René aloud. 'And as
for Claude----' His affection for him had been so sincere, and it was
this man, his dearest friend, who had spoken of Suzanne in such a
shameless manner, like a blackguard and a traitor. What a contrast with
the poor angel thus insulted, who, knowing it, had taken no further
revenge than to say, 'I have forgiven him!' On every other occasion when
she had spoken of Claude it had been to admire him for his talents and
to pity him for his faults. Another phrase of Suzanne's suddenly struck
him. 'That is no reason why he should revenge himself by forcing his
attentions upon any woman chance throws in his way. I got quite angry
one day when he was seated next to me at table.' 'That is the reason!'
said the poet to himself with returning anger; 'he has paid her
attentions which she has repelled, and so he slanders her. It is too
disgusting!'

A prey to these painful reflections, René had walked as far as the
Place de l'Opéra, and, mechanically turning to the right, had ascended
the boulevard without really noticing where he was. Hatred and rancour
were so repugnant to his soul that these feelings were soon supplanted
by the love he bore the beautiful woman so basely reviled by the
vindictive actress. What was she doing at that moment? She was yonder,
in a box at the Gymnase, obliged to sit out some play with her husband,
and, no doubt, sadly dreaming of their love and their last kisses. No
sooner had he conjured up her adorable image than he was seized with an
instinctive and irresistible longing to see her in the flesh. He hailed
a passing cab and gave the driver the name of the theatre. How often had
he been similarly tempted to go to some place of amusement when he knew
Suzanne would be there! But having given his mistress a promise that he
would not do so, he had always scrupulously repelled the temptation.
Besides, he took a curious pleasure in dwelling upon the absolute
distinction between the two Suzannes--between the woman of fashion and
his simple love--above all, he feared to meet Paul Moraines. He had read
Ernest Feydeau's 'Fanny,' and was more afraid of the terrible jealousy
described in that fine work than of death itself. To an analytical
writer, like Claude, this would have been an excellent reason for
seeking an encounter with the husband, so as to have a new kind of wound
to examine under the microscope. The poets who have not turned their art
into a trade nor their hearts into a raree-show are possessed of an
instinct which makes them avoid such degrading experiments; they respect
the beauty of their own feelings.

Whilst the cab was rolling along towards the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle
all these scruples, which René had once so religiously observed,
returned to him. But Colette's words had moved him more deeply than he
cared to admit. A hideous vision had flashed across his brain. He half
feared that it might come again, and he knew that Suzanne's presence was
the best preventive. Lovers frequently have these apparently unwarranted
ideas--the results of an instinct of self-preservation which our
feelings, like animate beings, possess. The cab rolled on whilst René
defended his infraction of the agreement made with his mistress. 'If she
could know what I have been obliged to hear, would she not be the first
to say, "Come and read my love for you in my face?" Besides, I shall
only look at her for a quarter of an hour, and then go away purged of
this stain. And what of the husband? Well, I must see him sooner or
later, and she tells me he is nothing to her!' Madame Moraines had not
failed to make her favourite lover swallow the improbable fable served
up by all married women to their paramours, though sometimes the fable
is true--for woman will be a riddle to all eternity--as the reports of
the divorce cases prove. In the delicacy with which Suzanne had allayed
his most secret and least legitimate feelings of jealousy René found an
additional pretext for denouncing those who slandered this sublime
creature. 'This woman the mistress of Desforges! Why? For money? What
nonsense! She, the daughter of a Cabinet Minister and the wife of a
business man! Claude, Claude! how could you?'

This tumult of ideas was somewhat stilled by the necessity for action as
soon as the poet reached the doors of the Gymnase. He was most anxious
that he should not be seen by Suzanne, and stood on the steps outside
for a moment lost in reflection. The first act was just over, as he
could see by the people flocking out, and this circumstance furnished
him with an idea for beholding his mistress without being observed by
her. He would first take a ticket for one of the cheaper seats in order
to get into the house; then, having found out where Suzanne was
sitting--which he could easily do during the interval from the corridor
at the side of the stalls--he would take a better seat, from which he
could safely feast his eyes upon her adorable features.

As he entered the theatre he was startled for a moment by coming face to
face with the Marquis de Hère, one of the swells he had seen at Madame
Komof's; the young nobleman, wearing a sprig of heather in his
button-hole, was swinging his stick and humming an air from the then
popular 'Cloches de Corneville' so lightly that he could hardly hear it
himself. He brushed past René without recognizing him, or appearing to
do so, any more than Salvaney had done an hour ago. The poet quickly
made his way to one of the entrances to the stalls. He had not long to
look; Madame Moraines was in the third box from the stage, almost
opposite him. She occupied the front seat, and there were two men in the
background; one, a fine young fellow, with a long beard and a pale
complexion--the husband, no doubt--was standing up. The other, who was
seated----

But why had chance--it could only be chance--brought into that box on
this very night the man whose name the wretched actress had just coupled
with Suzanne's? Yes, it was indeed Desforges who occupied the chair
behind Madame Moraines. The poet had not the slightest difficulty in
recognizing the Baron's energetic countenance, his piercing brown eyes,
his fair moustache, his high colour, and his forehead surmounted by a
wealth of almost white hair. Why did it distress René to see this old
beau talking so familiarly to Suzanne as she sat there fanning herself,
her face turned towards him, whilst Moraines scanned the boxes with his
opera-glass? Why did it cause him such pain as to make him turn hastily
away? For the first time since he had had the happiness to catch sight
of this woman on the threshold of the Komof mansion, looking so fair and
slim in her red gown, suspicion had entered his soul.

What suspicion? He could not possibly have expressed it in words. And
yet? When Suzanne had spoken to him about the theatre that morning she
had told him that she was going alone with her husband. What motive had
led her to pervert the truth? The detail, it was true, was of no
importance. But a lie, be it great or small, is still a lie. After all,
perhaps Desforges was only visiting them in their box during the
interval. This explanation seemed so natural as well as acceptable that
René adopted it on the spot.

Returning to the box-office, he asked for an outside stall, on the left,
having calculated that from this seat he would have the best opportunity
of watching the Moraines without being seen himself. Meanwhile the
audience had again settled down and the curtain rose. Desforges did not
leave the box. He kept his seat at the back, leaning forward to talk to
Suzanne. But why not? Could not his presence be explained in a thousand
ways without Suzanne having lied? Could not Moraines have invited him
without his wife's knowledge? He spoke familiarly to the woman, it is
true, and she answered him in a similar manner. But had not he, René,
met him at her house? A gentleman is sitting down in a theatre talking
to a lady he knows. Does that prove that there is a vile bond of sin
existing between them?

The poet argued in this fashion, and his arguments would have seemed to
him irrefutable if he had seen on Suzanne's face a single one of those
traits of melancholy he had expected to find. On the contrary, as she
sat there in her elegant theatre-gown of black lace, with a little pink
bonnet on her fair hair, eating, with dainty fingers, from the box of
crystallised fruit that stood before her, she looked thoroughly happy,
and as though she had not a care in the world. She laughed so heartily
at the jokes in the piece, and her eyes were so bright and sparkling as
she chatted with her two companions, that it seemed impossible to
imagine she had only that morning paid a visit to the shrine of her most
secret and heartfelt love. The emotions called forth by her meeting with
her lover had left so few traces on her face, now beaming with pleasure,
that René scarcely believed his own eyes. He had expected to find her
so very different.

The husband, too, with cordial joviality expressed in his manly
features, seemed by no means the crabbed and suspicious recluse Suzanne
had led her credulous lover to imagine. The unhappy fellow had come to
the theatre to get rid of the pain which Colette's words had caused him,
but when he reached home his distress had only increased. It has often
been said that we should not keep many friends if we could hear those to
whom we give that title speak of us behind our back. It is an even less
satisfactory experiment to take by surprise the woman we love. René had
just tried it, but he was too passionately fond of Suzanne to believe in
this first vision of his Madonna's duplicity.

'What am I worrying about after all?' he thought, on waking next
morning, and finding that he was still a prey to his painful feelings.
'That she was in a good temper last night? I must be very selfish to
reproach her with that! That Baron Desforges was in her box when she had
told me that she was going to the theatre with her husband alone? She
will explain that next time I see her. That her husband's face was not
in keeping with his character? Appearances are so deceptive! How
thoroughly have I been deceived in Claude Larcher, with his wheedling
ways and his frank face! How often has he done me a favour and then
pretended he had forgotten it, and yet how basely he has betrayed me
after all!'

All the cruel impressions he had experienced on the preceding evening
were now concentrated in a fresh and more furious fit of resentment
against the man who, by his wicked gossip, had been the primary cause of
his trouble. In the excess of his unjust anger René ignored the
unquestionable merits of his friend and protector--absolute
disinterestedness, a devotion that hoped for no return, and a total lack
of literary envy. He was not even charitable enough to admit that Claude
might have spoken to Colette unthinkingly and incautiously, but without
any treacherous intentions. Suzanne's lover felt that he could not
remain the friend of a man who had gone so far as to say what Larcher
had said of his mistress. That is what René kept repeating to himself
the whole day. On his return from the Bibliothèque, where he had found
it almost impossible to work, he sat down to his table to write this
villain one of those letters that are not easily forgotten. Having
finished it, he read it over. The terms in which he defended Madame
Moraines proclaimed his love, and now more than ever did he wish to keep
that a secret from Claude.

'What is the use of writing to him at all?' he thought; 'when he comes
back I will tell him what I think of him--that is much better.'

He was just about to destroy this dangerous letter when Emilie came in,
as she often did before dinner, to ask him how he was getting on with
his work. With a woman's innate curiosity, she read the address on the
envelope, and said, 'Oh! is Claude in Venice? Then you've heard from
him!'

'Never utter that name before me again!'replied René, tearing up the
letter in a kind of cool rage.

Emilie said no more. She had not been mistaken in her brother's accents.
René was in pain, and his anger against Claude was very great; but
since he was silent concerning its cause, his sister knew that the
latter must be something more than a mere literary dispute. By that
intuition which always accompanies tender affection, Emilie guessed that
the two writers had quarrelled on account of Madame Moraines, whose name
René never mentioned now, and whom she was beginning to hate for the
same reasons that had at first prompted her to like her. For some weeks
past she had noticed a great mental and physical change coming over her
brother. Although a model of purity herself, she was shrewd enough to
attribute this degeneration to its true cause. She noticed it as she
copied the fragments of the 'Savonarola' in the same way as she had
copied the 'Sigisbée'; and although her admiration for the lightest
trifle that came from René's pen was intense, there were many signs by
which she could see how differently the two works had been
inspired--from the number of lines written at each sitting to the
continual reconstruction of the scenes and even to the handwriting,
which had lost a little of its bold character.

The bubbling spring of clear, fresh poetry in which the 'Sigisbée' had
had its source seemed to have dried up. What change had taken place in
René's life? A woman had entered it, and it was therefore to this
woman's influence that Emilie attributed the momentary impairment of the
poet's faculties. She went still further, and hated this unknown but
formidable creature for the pain inflicted on Rosalie. By a strange
lapse of memory, frequently met with in generous natures, she forgot
what part she had herself taken in her brother's rupture with his former
_fiancée._ It was Madame Moraines whom she blamed for it all, and now
this same woman was embroiling René with the best and most devoted of
his friends--the one whom his faithful sister preferred because she had
gauged the strength of his friendship.

'But how could it have happened,' she thought, 'since Claude is not
here?'

She cudgelled her brains for a solution to this problem whilst attending
to her household duties, hearing Constant's home lessons, making out
Fresneau's bills, and conscientiously examining every button-hole and
seam of her brother's linen. René was shut up in his room, where
everything reminded him of Suzanne's one heavenly visit, and with
feverish impatience he awaited the day appointed for their next meeting.
Slander was doing its secret work, like some venomous sting. A poisoned
man will go about without knowing that he is ill, except for a vague
feeling of restlessness, but all the while the virus is fermenting in
his blood and will produce sudden and terrible results.

The poet still treated the shameful accusations brought by Colette
against Suzanne with scorn, but, by dint of pondering on her words in
order to refute them, his mind became more accustomed to their tenour.
At the moment when the actress had made her terrible charge he had not
stooped to rebut it; but now, as he turned it over in his mind, he tried
to save himself from a terrible abyss of doubt and from the most
degrading jealousy by clutching at the marks of sincerity Suzanne had
given him. What, then, were his feelings when, at the very outset of
their next meeting, he received undeniable proofs that her sincerity was
not what he had thought it?

He had reached the Rue des Dames with a troubled look on his face that
had not escaped Suzanne. In reply to her solicitous inquiries he had
pretended that it was due to an unfair article that had appeared in some
paper, but had almost immediately felt ashamed of this innocent excuse,
so sweetly had his mistress rebuked him.

'You big baby, you cannot have success without inspiring jealousy.'

'Let us talk about you instead,' he replied, and then asked, with a
beating heart: What have you been doing since I saw you last?'

Had Suzanne been watching him at that moment she must have seen his
agitation. It was a trap--innocent and simple enough--but a trap for all
that. In three times twenty-four hours suspicion had brought the
enthusiastic lover to this degree of distrust. But Suzanne could not
know this, for he was treating her in exactly the same way as she was
treating Desforges. She did not think René capable of stepping out of
the only _rôle_ in which she had seen him. How could she imagine that
this simple boy was trying to catch her?

'What have I been doing?' she repeated. 'First of all I went to the
Gymnase the other evening with my husband. Fortunately we haven't much
to say to each other, so I could think of you just as well as if I were
alone--I do feel so alone when I am with him. You talk of the troubles
of your literary life--if you only knew the misery of my so-called life
of pleasure and the loneliness of these weary _tête-à-têtes!_'

'Did you feel bored at the theatre, then?' continued René.

'You were not there,' she replied with a smile, and looked more intently
at him. 'What is the matter, love?'

She had never seen this bitter, almost hard, expression on René's face.

'It's very stupid of me, but I can't forget that article,' said the
poet.

'Was it so very bad, then? Where did it appear?' she asked, her instinct
of danger thoroughly aroused; but René, being unable to reply to this
unexpected question, merely stammered, 'It isn't worth your troubling to
read it.'

This only confirmed her suspicions--he was angry with her about
something. A question rose to her lips: 'Has some one been speaking ill
of me?' Her diplomacy, however, got the better of her impetuosity. Is
not anxiety to disarm suspicion almost a confession in itself? The
really innocent are quite callous. Her best course was to find out what
René had been doing himself, and what persons he had seen who might
have told him something.

'Did you go and see Mademoiselle Rigaud?' she asked, indifferently.

'Yes,' replied René, unable to disguise his embarrassment at the
question.

'And has she forgiven poor Claude?' continued Suzanne.

'No,' he rejoined, adding: 'She is a very bad woman,' and in such a
bitter tone that Madame Moraines at once guessed part of the truth. The
actress must certainly have spoken of her to René. She was again seized
with a desire to provoke his confidence, and reflected that the surest
means of attaining her object was by intoxicating her lover with
passion. She knew how powerless he would be to resist the emotions her
caresses would let loose, and at once sealed his lips with a long kiss.
By the silent and frenzied ardour with which he returned it Suzanne
understood not only that René had suffered, but that she had, to a
great extent, been the cause.

In her sweetest voice, and in tones best calculated to reach that heart
which had always been open to her, she said, 'What is this trouble that
you won't tell me?'

Had she uttered those words at the beginning of their interview he would
not have been able to resist them. Amidst tears and kisses, he would
have repeated what Colette had said! But alas! it was no longer
Colette's words that caused him his present sufferings. What now gave
him frightful pain and pierced his heart like a dagger was the fact of
having caught her, his idol, in a deliberate lie. Yes, she had lied;
this time there was no doubt about it. She had told him that she had
been to the theatre with her husband only, and that was false; that she
had been sad, and that was false too. Could he reply to her question,
which betrayed affectionate concern, by two such clear, explicit, and
irrefutable charges? He had not the courage to do it, and got out of the
dilemma by repeating his former reply. Suzanne looked at him, and he was
obliged to turn his head. She only sighed and said, 'Poor René!' and,
as it was almost time for her to go, she pushed her inquiries no
further.

'He will tell me all about it next time,' she thought as she went home.
In spite of herself she was worried by René's silence. Her love for the
poet was sincere, though it was a very different passion from that which
she expressed in words. Before all else it was a physical love, but,
corrupted as Suzanne was by her life and her surroundings, or perhaps
because of this very corruption, the poet's nobility of soul did not
fail to impress her. And to such an extent that she imagined their
romance would be robbed of half its delight if ever the circle of
illusions she had drawn round him were broken. That some one had tried
to break this magic circle was evident, and this some one could only be
Colette. Everything seemed to prove it. But, on the other hand, what
reason could the actress have for hating her, Suzanne, whom she probably
did not know, even by name? Colette and Claude were lovers, and here
Madame Moraines again came upon the man whom she had distrusted from the
first day. If Colette had spoken to René about her, Claude himself must
have spoken about her to Colette. At this point her ideas became
confused. Larcher had never seen her with René. And the latter, whose
word she did not doubt, had told her that he had confided nothing to his
friend.

'I am on the wrong track,' thought Suzanne. Argue as she would, she
could not convince herself that René was so troubled on account of this
pretended newspaper article. There was danger in store for the dear
relations that existed between them. She felt it, and the feeling became
still more pronounced by what her husband told her on the very next day
after her unsatisfactory interview with René.

It was just before seven, and Suzanne was alone in the little _salon_
where she had first cast her net over the poet--a net as finely woven
and as yielding as the web in which the spider catches the unwary fly.
She had had more callers than usual that afternoon, and Desforges had
only just gone. Suddenly Paul came in his wonted noisy way and in
high animal spirits. Seizing her by the waist--for she had started up at
his boisterous entry--he said, 'Give me a kiss--no, two kisses,' taking
one after the other, 'as a reward for having been good.' Seeing the look
of interrogation in Suzanne's eyes, he added, 'I have at last paid
Madame Komof that visit I've owed her for so long. Whom do you think I
met there? Guess--that young poet, René Vincy. I can't understand why
Desforges doesn't like him. He's a charming fellow; he pleased me
immensely. We had quite a long talk. I told him that you would be very
glad to see him. Was I doing right?'

'Quite right,' replied Suzanne; 'and who else was there?'

Whilst her husband was reciting a list of familiar names she was
thinking: 'What reason had René for going to Madame Komof's?' This was
the first call of that kind he had made since the beginning of their
attachment. He had so often said to his mistress: 'I want only you and
my work.' It had been his custom during the past few months to give her
a full account not only of what he had done, but of what he was going to
do, and yet he had said nothing of this visit, so entirely out of
keeping with his present mode of life. And he had met Paul, who had no
doubt proved himself the very opposite of what his wife had described
him to be.

Suzanne felt quite out of temper with the kindhearted fellow who had
been guilty of calling on the Comtesse on the same day as the poet, and
she said, in an almost petulant tone: 'I am sure you haven't written to
Crucé for that Alençon.'

'I have written,' replied Moraines, with an air of triumph, 'and you
shall have it.' Crucé, who acted as a sort of private art broker, had
spoken to Suzanne about some old lace, and it was this she wished her
husband to get her. From time to time she would ask him for something
that she could show her friends and say, 'Paul is so good to me. This a
present he brought me only the other day.' She would forget to add that
the money for such presents generally came from Desforges--in an
indirect way, it is true. Although the Baron seldom troubled himself
with business matters except so far as the careful investment of his
capital necessitated, he often had opportunities for speculating with
almost absolute safety, and always gave Moraines a chance of doing the
same. The Compagnie du Nord, of which Desforges was a director, had
recently taken over a local line that was on the brink of ruin. Paul had
succeeded in making a profit of thirty thousand francs by purchasing
some shares at the right moment, and it was out of this profit that
Suzanne was going to have her lace. This little business operation, too,
had indirectly led to a somewhat strange scene between René and his
mistress.

In the course of conversation she had asked him how much the 'Sigisbée'
had produced, adding, 'What have you done with all that money?'

'I don't know,' René had replied, with a laugh. 'My sister bought me
some stock with the first few thousand francs, and I have kept the rest
in my drawer.' 'Will you let me talk to you like a sister, too?' she had
said. 'A friend of ours is a director of the Compagnie du Nord, and he
has given us a valuable tip. Do you promise to keep it a secret?'
Thereupon she had explained to him how to get hold of some shares. 'Give
your orders to-morrow, and you can make as much as you like.'

'Hold your tongue!' René had said, putting his hand over her mouth. 'I
know it's very kind of you to talk like that, but I can't allow you to
give me that sort of information. I should feel ashamed of myself.'

He had spoken so seriously that Suzanne had not dared to press the
matter, though his scruples had appeared to her somewhat ridiculous. But
then, if he had not been so unsophisticated and such a _gobeur_, as she
called him in that horrible Parisian slang that spares not even the
highest forms of sentiment, would she have been so fond of him? And yet
it was this very innocence of soul that she feared. If ever he should
get to hear what her life was really like, how his noble heart would
turn against her, and how incompatible it would be with his high sense
of honour ever to forgive her! A hint had, nevertheless, somehow reached
him. In going over the different signs of danger that she had noticed
one after another--René's trouble, his anger against Colette Rigaud,
his reticence and his unexpected visit to Madame Komof--Suzanne said to
herself: 'I made a mistake in not getting him to explain at once.'

When, therefore, she made her appearance in the Rue des Dames a few days
later she was fully determined not to fall into the same error again.
She saw at once that the poet was even more distressed than before,
though she pretended not to notice this distress nor the cool manner in
which he received her first kiss. With a sad smile she said to him:

'It was very silly of you, dear, not to tell me you were about to call
on the Comtesse. I would have taken care that you were spared a meeting
which must have been very painful?'

'Painful?' repeated René in an ironical tone that Suzanne had never
heard him use before, 'why, M. Moraines was charming.'

'Yes,' she replied, 'you have made a conquest. He, so sarcastic as a
rule, spoke of you with an enthusiasm that really pained me. Didn't he
invite you to call on us? You may be proud. It is so rare that he
welcomes a new face. Poor René,' she continued, placing both her hands
on her lover's shoulder, and laying her cheek on her hands, 'how you
must have suffered!'

'I have indeed suffered,' replied René, in a hollow voice. He looked at
the pretty face so near his own and remembered what Suzanne had said to
him in the Louvre before the portrait of the Giorgione's mistress, 'How
can anyone lie with a face like that?' Yet she had lied to him. And what
proof had he that she had not been lying all along? Whilst a prey to the
torments of suspicion, and especially since his meeting with Paul, the
most frightful conjectures had entered his mind. The contrast between
the Moraines he had seen and the tyrannical husband described by Suzanne
had been too great. 'Why has she deceived me on that point too?' René
had asked himself.

He had called on Madame Komof without any distinct aim, but in the
secret hope of hearing Suzanne spoken of by those of her own set. They
at least would be sure to know her! But alas! his conversation with
Moraines had sufficed to involve him in more horrible doubt than ever.
One thing was now very plain to him; Suzanne had used her husband as a
bugbear to keep him, René, from visiting their house. Why--if it were
not that she had something in her life to hide? What was this something?
Colette had taken upon herself to answer this question in advance. Under
the influence of that horrible suspicion, René had conceived a plan,
very simple of execution, and the result of which he thought would prove
decisive. He would take advantage of the husband's invitation to ask
Suzanne for permission to visit her at home. If she said yes, she had
nothing to hide; if she said no----

And as this resolution recurred to the poet he continued to gaze upon
that adorable face resting on his shoulder. Each one of those dear
features recalled fresh memories! Those eyes so clear and blue--what
faith he had had in them! That noble brow--what refined thoughts he had
imagined it to shelter! Those delicate, mobile lips--with what sweet
abandonment had he heard them speak! No--what Colette had told him was
impossible! But why these lies--a first, a second, and a third time?
Yes, she had lied three times. There is no such thing as a trivial lie.
René understood this now, and felt that confidence, like love, is
governed by the great law of all or nothing. We have it or we have it
not. Those who have lost it know this only too well.

'My poor René!' repeated Suzanne. She saw that he was in that state
when compassion softens the heart and opens it wide.

'Poor indeed!' replied the poet, moved by this mark of pity, that came
just when he had most need of it; then, looking into her eyes, he
unburdened himself.

'Listen, Suzanne, I prefer to tell you all. I have come to the
conclusion that the life we are leading now cannot last. It makes me too
unhappy--it does not satisfy my love. To see you only by stealth, an
hour to-day and an hour in a few days' time, to know nothing of what you
are doing, to share no part of your life, is too cruel. Be quiet--let me
speak. There was a weighty objection to my being received in your
house--your husband. Well--I have seen him. I have borne the ordeal. We
have shaken hands. Since it is done, allow me at least to benefit by my
effort. I know there is nothing very noble in what I am saying, but I
have no desire to be noble--I love you. I feel that my mind is getting
full of all kinds of ideas about you. I entreat you to let me come to
your house, to live in your world, to see you elsewhere than here, where
we meet only to--'

'To love each other!' she exclaimed, interrupting him and shaking her
head; 'do not utter blasphemy.' Then, sinking down into a chair, she
continued, 'Alas! my beautiful dream is over then--that dream in which
you seemed to take as much delight as I--the dream of a love all to
ourselves, and only for ourselves, with none of those compromises that
horrified us both!'

'Then won't you let me come and see you as I ask?' said René, returning
to the charge.

'What you are asking me to do is to kill our happiness,' cried Suzanne;
'so sensitive as I know you to be, you would never stand the shocks to
which you would be exposed. You know nothing of that world in which I am
obliged to live, and how unfitted you are for it. And afterwards you
would hold me responsible for your disenchantment. Give up this fatal
idea, love, give it up for my sake.'

'What is there then in this life of yours that I may not see?' asked the
poet, looking at her fixedly. He could not be aware that Suzanne had
only one aim in view--to get him to tell her the reason of this sudden
desire--for she concluded that it must be the same reason which had
caused his distress the other day, and which had taken him to Madame
Komof's so unexpectedly. She was not mistaken as to René's meaning, and
replied in the broken accents of a woman unjustly accused:

'How can you talk to me like that, René? Some one must have poisoned
your mind. You cannot have got hold of such ideas yourself. Come to my
house, love! Come as often as you like! "Something in my life that you
may not see"--I, who would rather die than tell you a lie!'

'Then why did you tell me a lie the other day?' cried René. Conquered
by the despair he thought he could see in those beautiful eyes, disarmed
by the permission she had just given him, unable to keep the secret of
his grief any longer, he felt that necessity of unbosoming himself
which, in a quarrel with a woman, is as good as putting one's head into
a noose.

'I told you a lie?' exclaimed Suzanne.

'Yes, when you told me you went to the theatre with your husband.'

'But I did go----'

'So did I,' said René; 'there was some one else in your box.'

'Desforges!' cried Suzanne; 'you're mad, my dear René--mad! He came
into our box during one of the intervals, and my husband made him stay
till the piece was over. Desforges!' she repeated with a smile, 'why,
he's nobody. I didn't even think of mentioning him. Seriously, you don't
mean to say you're jealous of Desforges?'

'You looked so bright and happy,' rejoined René, in a voice that
already showed signs of relenting.

'Ungrateful man,' she said; 'I wish you could have read what was going
on within me! It is this necessity for continual dissimulation which is
the bane of my life; and now, to have you reproach me with it! No,
René--this is too cruel, too unjust!'

'Forgive me! Forgive me!' cried the poet, now perfectly convinced by the
natural manner of his mistress. 'It is true. Some one has poisoned my
mind. It was Colette! How justified you were in your distrust of Claude
Larcher!'

'I did not allow him to pay me attentions,' said Suzanne; 'men never
forgive that.'

'The wretch!' cried the poet angrily, and then, as if to rid himself of
his grief by telling it, he went on: 'He knew that I loved you. How?
Because I hesitated and got confused the only time I ever mentioned your
name to him. He knows me so well! He guessed my secret and told his
mistress all about it--and a lot of other lies. I can't repeat them to
you.'

'Tell me, René, tell me,' said Suzanne, wearing at that moment the
noble look of resignation that is seen on the faces of those who go to
the scaffold innocent. 'Did they say that I had had lovers before you?'

'Would that it were only that!' exclaimed René.

'What then, _mon Dieu?_' she cried. 'What does it matter to me what they
said, but that you, René, should believe it! Come, confess, so that you
may have nothing on your mind. I have at least the right to demand
that.'

'True,' replied the poet, and looking as shamefaced as though he were
the guilty one, he stammered rather than pronounced the following words:
'Colette told me she heard from Claude that you were . . . No--I can't
say it--well, that Desforges . . .'

'Still Desforges,' said Suzanne, interrupting him with a sweet but
ironical smile; 'it is too comical.' She did not want René to formulate
the charge that she could now guess. It would have wounded her dignity
to descend to such depths. 'You were told that Desforges had been my
lover--that he was still so, no doubt. But that is not slander--it is
too ridiculous to be that. Poor old friend--he who knew me when I was as
high as that!--he and my father were always together. He has seen me
grow up, and loves me as if I were his own child. And it is this man
whom---- No, René, swear to me that you didn't believe it. Have I
deserved that you should think so badly of me?'



CHAPTER XVII

PROOFS


In that strange mental disease called jealousy the intervals between the
attacks are periods of delight. For some days or for some hours the
feelings of love regain their divine sweetness, like a return to
strength in convalescence. Suzanne had so fully convinced René of the
absurdity of his suspicions that he did not wish to be behind her in
generosity, and refused to avail himself of the permission to call in
the Rue Murillo for which he had so earnestly entreated. Two or three
phrases uttered in the right manner and with the right expression will
always overcome the deepest distrust of a devoted lover, provided he has
not had ocular proofs of treason--and even then? But here the elements
of which this first suspicion was composed were so fragile!

It was therefore with absolute good faith that the poet said to Suzanne,
who was herself quite delighted with this unexpected result, 'No, I
shall not come to your house. It was foolish of me to desire any change
in our relations. We are so happy as we are.'

'Yes, until some wretch libels me again,' she replied. 'Promise me that
you will always tell me.'

'I swear I will, love,' said he. 'But I know you now, and I am more sure
of myself.'

He said so, and he thought so. Suzanne thought so too, and gave herself
up to the delights of her paradise regained, though fully aware that she
would have a second battle to fight when Claude returned. But could
Larcher say more than he had already said? Besides, René would tell her
of his return, and if the first meeting of the two men did not result in
a definite rupture it would be time to act. She would make her lover
choose between breaking entirely with Claude or with herself, and about
his choice she had no doubt whatever. In spite of his protests, the poet
seemed to be less sure of himself, for his heart beat fast when, on his
return home from the Bibliothèque one evening about a week after the
scene with Suzanne, his sister said to him, 'Claude Larcher is back.'

'And has he dared to call here?' cried René.

Emilie was visibly embarrassed and said, 'He asked me when he could see
you?'

'You should have answered "Never,"' replied the poet.

'René!' exclaimed Emilie, 'how could I say that to an old friend who
has been so kind and devoted to you? I think I had better tell you----'
she added; 'I asked him what had taken place between you. He seemed so
surprised--so painfully surprised--that I will swear he has never done
you any harm. There is some misunderstanding. I told him to come
to-morrow morning, and that he would be sure to find you in.'

'Why don't you mind your own business?' cried René angrily; 'did I ask
you to meddle in my affairs?'

'How unkind you are!' said Emilie, deeply hurt by her brother's words,
and almost in tears.

'All right, don't cry,' replied the poet, somewhat ashamed of his
roughness; 'perhaps it is better that I should see him. I owe him that.
But after that, I never want to hear his name again. You
understand--never!'

In spite of his apparent firmness, René did not sleep much that night,
but lay awake thinking of the approaching meeting. Not that he had much
doubt about the issue, but, try as he would to increase his resentment
against his old friend, he could not get as far as hating him. He had
grown extremely fond of this peculiar individual who, when not
intentionally disagreeable, commanded affection by his sincere though
frivolous nature, by his originality, by those very faults which only
harmed himself, and above all by a kind of innate, indestructible, and
invincible generosity.

On the eve of severing their friendship René recalled to mind how it
had originated. Claude, then very poor, was a tutor in the Ecole
Saint-André when René himself was a scholar in the sixth form. A
curious legend concerning the eccentric professor was told in this
well-conducted and eminently religious institution. Some of the boys
declared they had seen him seated in an open carriage next to a very
pretty woman dressed in pink. Then one day Claude disappeared from the
school, and René did not see him again until he turned up at Fresneau's
wedding as best man, and already on the road to fame. After some talk
over old times, Claude had asked to see his poems. The writer of thirty
had shown as much indulgence as an elder brother in reading these first
essays, and had immediately treated the aspiring lad as an equal. With
what tact had he submitted these rough sketches to the processes of a
higher criticism--a criticism which encourages an artist by pointing out
his defects without crushing him beneath their weight. And then had
followed the episode of the 'Sigisbée,' in which Claude had displayed
unusual devotion for one who was himself a dramatic author.

The poet was sufficiently well acquainted with literary life to know
that even simple kindness is rarely met with between one generation and
the next. His rapid success had already procured him what is perhaps the
bitterest experience of the years of apprenticeship--the jealousy of
those very masters he admired most, in whose school he had formed his
style, and at whose feet he would so gladly have laid his sprig of
laurel. Claude Larcher's delight in another's talent was as spontaneous
and as sincere as if he had not already wielded the pen for fifteen
years. And now this valuable, nay, unique friendship was to be severed.
But was it his fault, René asked himself, as he tossed about in his
bed, and recalled all these things one after another? Why had Larcher
spoken to this wretched girl as he had done? Why had he betrayed his
young friend, who looked up to him as a brother? Why?

This distressing question again led René's mind to ideas from which he
turned instinctively. Basilio's famous phrase--'Slander, slander--some
is sure to stick'--expresses one of the saddest and most indisputable
truths concerning the human heart. René would, it is true, have
despised himself for doubting Suzanne after their reconciliation, but
every suspicion, even a groundless one, leaves behind it some poisonous
remnant of distrust, and had he dared to look into the very depths of
his soul he would have recognised that fact in the unhealthy curiosity
he felt to learn from Claude what reasons had led him to make his lying
accusation. This curiosity, the reminiscences of a long friendship, and
a kind of fear of the man who, by his age alone, had always had an
advantage over him--all tended to lessen the anger of the wounded lover.
He tried to work himself up to the same degree of fury that had
possessed him on leaving Colette's dressing-room, but he was not
successful. Like all who know themselves to be weak, he wished to rear
an insurmountable barrier between Claude and himself at once, and when
Larcher made his appearance at nine o'clock, and held out his hand in
friendly greeting, the poet kept his own hand in his pocket.

The two men stood for a moment facing each other, both very pale.
Claude, though tanned by his travels, looked thin and careworn, and his
eyes blazed at the insult offered him. René knew to what lengths
Larcher's anger would lead him, and expected to see the hand he had
refused raised to strike a blow. But Claude's will was stronger than his
offended pride, and he spoke in a voice that trembled with suppressed
passion.

'Vincy, do not tempt me. You are only a child, and it is my duty to
think for both of us. Come, come! Listen, René--I know all. Do you
understand? All--yes, all. I arrived yesterday. Your sister told me that
you were angry with me, and a good many other things that opened my
eyes. Your silence had frightened me. I thought that you had betrayed me
with Colette. Fool that she is! Fortunately she hadn't the sense to
guess that there was my vulnerable point. On leaving here I went to her
house. I found her alone. She told me what she had done--what she had
told you, and gloried in it, the hussy. Then I did what was right.' Here
he began to march up and down the room, absorbed in recollections of the
scene he described and almost oblivious of the poet's presence. 'I beat
her--beat her like a madman. It did me good. I flung her to the ground
and rained blow upon blow until she cried "Mercy! mercy!" I could have
killed her--and taken a delight in it. How beautiful she looked, too,
with her hair all tumbling about and her dress hanging in shreds where I
had torn it from her snowy shoulders. Then she grovelled at my feet, but
I was relentless, and left the house. She can show the marks on her body
to her next lover if she likes, and tell him from whom she got them. How
it relieves one to be a brute sometimes!' Then, suddenly stopping before
René, he said, 'And all because she had touched you. Yes or no,' he
cried, in his same angry tone, 'is it on account of what this jade told
you that you are angry with me?'

'It is on that account,' replied René coldly.

'Very well,' said Claude, taking a seat, 'then we can talk. There must
be no misunderstanding this time, so I shall be as plain as I possibly
can. If I understand rightly, this wretch of a girl has told you two
things. Let us proceed in order. This is the first--that I told her you
were intimate with Madame Moraines. Excuse me,' he added, as the poet
made a gesture. 'Between us two, in a matter affecting our friendship, I
don't care a rap for the conventionalities that forbid us to mention a
woman's name. I am not conventional myself, and so I mention her. Infamy
number one. Colette told you a lie. This was exactly what I had said to
her--I recollect the words as though it were yesterday, and regretted
them before they had left my mouth--"I think poor René is falling in
love with Madame Moraines." The only thing I went by was your
embarrassed manner when mentioning her to me. But Colette had seen you
sitting next to her at supper and paying her great attention. We had
joked about the matter--as people will joke about these things--without
attaching much importance to it. At least, I didn't--but all that's
nothing. You were my friend. Your feeling might have been a serious
one--it was, as it happened. I was wrong, and I frankly apologise in
spite of the insult which, on the word of this vile drab, you have just
offered me--me, your best and oldest friend!'

'But then why,' cried René, 'did you give me away to this creature,
knowing what she was? And again, had you spoken only of me, I would have
forgiven you----'

'Let us pass on to this second point,' said Claude, in his calm,
methodical tone, 'that is to say, to the second lie. She told you that I
had informed her of Madame Moraines' relations with Desforges. That is
false. She had heard of them long ago from all the Salvaneys with whom
she dined, supped, and flirted. No, René--if there is anything with
which I reproach myself, it is not for having spoken to her about Madame
Moraines--I could not have told her anything she didn't know. It is for
not having spoken to you openly when you came to see me. I was fully
acquainted with the depravity of this second but more fashionable
Colette, and I did not warn you of it while there was yet time. Yes, I
ought to have spoken--I ought to have opened your eyes and said: "Woo
this woman, win her and wear her, but do not love her." And I held my
peace. My only excuse is that I did not think her sufficiently
disinterested to enter into your life as she has done. I said to myself:
"He has no money, so there is no danger."'

'Then,' cried René, who had scarcely been able to contain himself
whilst Claude was speaking of Suzanne in such terms, 'do you believe
this vile thing that Colette has told me of Madame Moraines and Baron
Desforges?'

'Whether I believe it?' replied Larcher, gazing at his friend in
astonishment. 'Am I the man to invent such a story about a woman?'

'When you have paid a woman attentions,' said the poet, uttering his
words very slowly, and in a tone of deepest contempt, 'attentions which
she has repulsed, the least you can do is to respect her.'

'I!' cried Claude, 'I! I have paid Madame Moraines attentions? I
understand--this is what she has told you.' He broke into a nervous
laugh. 'When we put such things into our plays these harlots accuse us
of libelling them. Of libelling them! As if such a thing were possible!
They are all the same. And you believed her! You believed me, Claude
Larcher, to be such a villain as to dishonour an honest woman in order
to avenge my wounded pride? Look me well in the face, René. Do I look
like a hypocrite? Have you ever known me to act as one? Have I proved my
affection for you? Well--I give you my word of honour that this woman
has lied to you, like Colette. The hussies! And there was I dying of
grief, without a word of pity, because this woman, who is worse than a
prostitute, had accused me of this dirty thing. Yes--worse than a
prostitute! They sell themselves for bread--and she, for what? For a
little of the wretched luxury that _parvenus_ indulge in.'

'Hold your tongue, Claude, hold your tongue!' cried René, in terrible
accents. 'You are killing me.' A storm of feelings, irresistible in its
fury, had suddenly burst forth within him. He could not doubt his
friend's sincerity, and this, added to the assurance with which Claude
had spoken of Desforges, forced upon the wretched lover a conviction of
Suzanne's duplicity too painful to endure. He could restrain himself no
longer, and, rushing upon his tormentor, seized him by the lapels of his
coat and shook him so violently that the material gave way.

'When you tell a man such things about the woman he loves you must give
him proofs--you understand--proofs!'

'You are mad!' replied Claude, disengaging himself from his grasp;
'proofs!--why, all Paris will give you them, my poor boy! Not one
person, but ten, twenty, thirty, will tell you that seven years ago the
Moraines were ruined. Who got the husband into the Insurance Company?
Desforges. He is a director of that company, as he is also a director in
the Compagnie du Nord, and a deputy and an ex-Councillor of State, and
Heaven knows what besides! He is a big man, this Desforges, although he
doesn't look it, and one who can indulge in all kinds of luxuries. Whom
do you always find in the Rue Murillo? Desforges. Whom do you meet with
Madame Moraines at the theatre? Desforges. And do you think the fellow
is a man to play at Platonic love with this pretty woman married to her
ninny of a husband? Such nonsense is all very well for you and me, but
not for a Desforges! Wherever are your eyes and ears when you go to see
her?'

'I have only been to her house three times,' said René.

'Only three times?' repeated Claude, looking at his friend. Emilie's
plaintive confidences on the preceding evening had left him no doubt
concerning the relations between Suzanne and the poet. René's imprudent
exclamation, however, opened his eyes to the peculiar character these
relations must have assumed.

'I don't want to know anything,' he went on; 'it is an understood thing
that honour forbids us to talk of such women, just as if real honour did
not call upon us to denounce their infamy to the whole world. So many
fresh victims would then be spared! Proofs? You want proofs. Collect
them for yourself. I know only two ways of getting at a woman's
secrets--by opening her letters or having her watched. Madame Moraines
never writes--you may be sure of that. Put some one on her track.'

'You are advising me to commit an ignoble action!' cried the poet.

'Nothing is noble or ignoble in love,' replied Larcher. 'I have myself
done what I advise you to do. Yes, I have set detectives to watch
Colette. A connection with one of these hussies means war to the knife,
and you are scrupulous about the choice of your weapon.'

'No, no,' replied René, shaking his head; 'I cannot.'

'Then follow her yourself!' continued the relentless logician. 'I know
my Desforges. He's a character, don't you make any mistake. I made a
study of him once, when I was still fool enough to believe that
observation led to talent. This man is an astonishing compound of order
and disorder, of libertinism and hygiene. Their meetings are no doubt
regulated, like all else in his life,--once a week, at the same
hour,--not in the morning, which would interfere with his exercise,--not
too late in the afternoon, which would interfere with his visits and his
game of bézique at the club. Watch her. Before a week is over you will
know the truth. I wish I could say that I had any doubt concerning the
result of the experiment And it is I, my poor boy, who led you into this
mire! You were so happy here until I took you by the hand and introduced
you to that wicked world where you met this monster. If it hadn't been
she it would have been another. I seem to bring misfortune on all those
I love. But tell me you forgive me! I have such need of your friendship.
Come, don't say no!'

Then, as Claude held out his hands, René grasped them fervently, and
sinking down into a chair--the same in which Suzanne had sat--he burst
into tears and exclaimed, 'My God, what suffering this is!'

       *       *       *       *       *

Claude had given his friend a week. Before the end of the fourth day
René called at the Sainte-Euverte mansion in a state of such agitation
that Ferdinand could not repress an exclamation as he opened the door.

'My poor Monsieur Vincy,' said the worthy man, 'are you going to kill
yourself with work like master?'

Claude was seated at his writing-table in the famous 'torture-chamber,'
smoking as he worked, but, on seeing René, he threw down his cigarette,
and a look of intense anxiety came into his face as he cried, '_Mon
Dieu!_ What has happened?'

'You were right,' replied the poet, in a choking voice, 'she is the
vilest of women.'

'Except one,' remarked Claude bitterly, and, parodying Chamfort's
celebrated phrase, added, 'Colette must not be discouraged. But what
have you done?'

'What you advised me to do,' replied René, in accents of peculiar
asperity, 'and I have come to beg your pardon for having doubted your
word. Yes--I have played the spy upon her. What a feeling it is! The
first day, the second day, the third day--nothing. She only paid visits
and went shopping, but Desforges came to the Rue Murillo every day. I
was in a cab stationed at the corner of the street, and when I saw him
enter the house I suffered agonies of torture. At last, to-day, about
two o'clock, she goes out in her brougham. I follow her in my cab. After
stopping at two or three places, her carriage draws up in front of
Galignani's, the bookseller's, under the colonnade in the Rue de Rivoli,
and she gets out. I see her speak to the coachman, and the brougham goes
off without her. She walks for a short distance under the colonnade, and
I see that she is wearing a thick veil. How well I know that veil! My
heart beat fast and my brain was in a whirl. I felt that I was nearing a
decisive moment. She then disappears through an archway, but I follow
her closely and find myself in a courtyard with an opening at the other
end, affording egress into the Rue du Mont-Thabor. I look up and down
the latter street. No one. She could not have had time to get out of
sight. I decide to wait and watch the back entrance. If she had an
appointment there she would not go out the same way she came in. I
waited for an hour and a quarter in a wine-shop just opposite. At the
end of that time she reappeared, still wearing her thick veil. The
dress, the walk, and the veil--I know them all too well to be mistaken.
She had come out by the Rue du Mont-Thabor. Her accomplice would
therefore leave by the Rue de Rivoli. I rush through to that side. After
a quarter of an hour a door opens and I find myself face to face
with--can you guess? Desforges! At last I have them--the proofs! Wretch
that she is!'

'Not at all! Not at all!' replied Claude; 'she is a woman, and they're
all alike. May I confide in you in return--that is, make an exchange of
horrors? You know how Colette treated me when I begged for a little
pity? The other night I flogged her till she was black and blue, and
this is what she writes me. Read it.' And he handed his friend a letter
that was lying open on the table. René took it and read the following
lines:


'2 A. M.

'I have waited for you till now, love, but you haven't come. I shall
wait for you at home all day to-day, and to-night after I come from the
theatre. I only act in the first piece, and I shall make haste to get
back. Come for the sake of our old love. Think of my lips. Think of my
golden hair. Think of our kisses. Think of her who adores you, who is
wretched at having given you pain, and who wants you, as she loves
you--madly.


'Your own COLETTE.'


'That's something like a love letter, isn't it?' said Larcher with a
kind of savage joy. 'It's more cruel than all the rest to have a woman
love you like that because you've beaten her to a jelly. But I'll have
no more to do with them--neither with her nor anyone else. I hate love
now, and I'm going to cut out my heart. Follow my example.'

'If I could!' replied René, 'but it's impossible. You don't know what
that woman was to me.' And again yielding to the passion that raged
within him, he wrung his hands and broke into a fit of convulsive sobs.
'You don't know how I loved her, how I believed in her, and what I've
given up for her. And then to think of her in the arms of this
Desforges--it's horrible!' A shudder of disgust ran through him. 'If she
had chosen another man, a man of whom I could think with hatred or
rage--but without this feeling of horror! Why, I can't even feel jealous
of him. For money! For money!' He rose and caught hold of Claude's arm
frantically. 'You told me that he was a director of the Compagnie du
Nord. Do you know what she wanted to do the other day? To give me a few
good tips in shares. I, too, would have been kept by the Baron. It's
only natural, isn't it, that the old man should pay them all--the wife,
the husband, and the lover? Oh! if I only could! She is going to the
Opera to-night--what if I went there? What if I took her by the hair and
spat in her face, before all the people who know her, telling them all
that she is a low, filthy harlot?'

He fell back into his chair, once more bursting into tears.

'She occupied my thoughts every hour, every moment of the day. You had
told me to be on my guard against women, it is true. But then you were
beguiled by a Colette, an actress, a creature who had had other lovers
before you--whilst she---- Every line in her face swears to me that it
is impossible--that I have been dreaming. It is as if I had seen an
angel lie. And yet I have the proof, the undeniable proof. Why did I not
confront her there in the street, on the threshold of that vile place? I
should have strangled her with my hands, like some beast. Claude, my
dear fellow, how I wronged you! And the other! I have crushed and
trodden under foot the noblest heart that beat in order to get to this
monster. It is but just--I have deserved it all. But what can there be
in Nature to produce such beings?'

For a long, long time these confused lamentations continued. Claude
listened to them in silence, his head resting on his hand. He too had
suffered, and he knew what consolation it gives to tell one's sorrow. He
pitied the poor youth who sat there sobbing as if his heart would break,
and the clear-sighted analyst within him could not help observing the
difference between the poet's grief and that which he himself had so
often felt under similar circumstances. He never remembered having
suffered this torture, even when hard hit, without probing his wounds,
whilst René was the picture of a young and sincere creature who has no
idea of studying his tears in a mirror. These strange reflections upon
the diversity of men's souls did not prevent him from sympathising most
deeply with his friend, and there was a note of true feeling in his
voice when he at last took advantage of a break in René's lament to
speak.

'It is as our dear Heine said--Love is the hidden disease of the heart.
You are now at the period of inception. Will you take the advice of a
veteran sufferer? Pack up your traps and put miles upon miles between
you and this Suzanne. A pretty name and a well-chosen one! A Suzanne who
makes money out of the elders! At your age you will be quickly cured. I
am quite cured myself. Not that I know how and when it happened--in
fact, it amazes me! But for the past three days I have been rid of my
love for Colette. Meanwhile, I'm not going to leave you alone; come and
dine with me. We shall drink hard and be merry, and so avenge ourselves
upon our troubles.'

After his fit of passion had spent itself René had fallen into that
state of mental coma which succeeds great outbursts of grief. He
suffered himself to be led, like one in a trance, along the Rue du Bac,
then along the Rue de Sèvres and the boulevard as far as the Restaurant
Lavenue at the corner of the Gare Montparnasse, long frequented by many
well-known painters and sculptors of our day. Claude led the way to a
_cabinet particulier_, in which he pointed out to René Colette's name,
scratched on one of the mirrors amidst scores of others. Rubbing his
hands, he exclaimed: 'We must treat our past with ridicule,' and ordered
a very elaborate meal with two bottles of the oldest Corton. During the
whole of the dinner he did not cease to propound his theories on women,
whilst his companion hardly ate, but sat lost in mental contemplation of
the divine face in which he had so fully believed. Was it possible that
he was not dreaming, and that Suzanne was really one of those of whom
Claude was speaking in terms of such contempt?

'Above all,' said Larcher, 'take no revenge. Revenge in love is like
drinking alcohol after burning punch. We become attached to women as
much by the harm we do them as by that which they do us. Imitate me, not
as I used to be, but as I am now, eating, drinking, and caring as much
for Colette as Colette cares for me. Absence and silence--these are the
sword and buckler in this battle. Colette writes to me, and I don't
answer. She comes to the Rue de Varenne. No admission. Where am I? What
am I doing? She cannot get to know. That makes them madder than all the
rest. Here's a suggestion: To-morrow morning you start for Italy, or
England, or Holland, whichever you prefer. Meanwhile Suzanne thinks you
are piously meditating upon all the lies she has told you, but in
reality you are comfortably seated in your compartment watching the
telegraph poles scud past and saying to yourself, "We are on even terms
now, my angel." Then in three, four, or five days' time the angel begins
to get uneasy. She sends a servant with a note to the Rue Coëtlogon.
The servant comes back:--"Monsieur Vincy is travelling!" "Travelling?"
The days roll on and Monsieur Vincy does not return, neither does he
write--he is happy elsewhere. How I should like to be there to see the
Baron's face when she vents her fury upon him. For these equitable
creatures invariably make the one who stays behind pay for the one who
has gone. But what's the matter with you?'

'Nothing,' said René, though Claude's mention of Desforges had caused
him a fresh fit of pain. 'I think you are right, and I shall leave Paris
to-morrow without seeing her.'

It was on that understanding that the two friends separated. Claude had
insisted on escorting René back to the Rue Coëtlogon, and, as he shook
hands with him at the gate, said, 'I will send Ferdinand to-morrow
morning to inquire what time you start. The sooner the better, and
without seeing her, mind--remember that!'

'You need not be afraid,' replied René.

'Poor fellow!' muttered Claude, as he returned along the Rue d'Assas.
Instead of going towards his own home he walked slowly in the direction
of the cab rank by the old Couvent des Carmes, turning round once or
twice to see whether his companion had really disappeared. Then he
stopped for a few minutes and seemed to hesitate. His eyes fell upon the
clock near the cab rank, and he saw that it was a quarter-past ten.

'The piece began at half-past eight,' he said to himself, 'and she's
just had time to change. I should be an ass to miss such a chance.
_Cocher!_' he cried, waking up the man whose horse seemed to have most
speed in him, 'Rue de Rivoli, corner of Jeanne d'Arc's statue, and drive
quickly.'

The cab started off and passed the top of the Rue Coëtlogon. 'He is
weeping now,' said Claude to himself; 'what would he say if he saw me
going to Colette's?' He little thought that as soon as he had entered
the house René had told his sister to get out his dress suit.
Astonished at such a request, Emilie ventured upon an interrogation, but
was met with, 'I have no time to talk,' uttered in such harsh tones that
she dared not insist.

It was Friday, and René, as he had told Claude, knew that Suzanne was
at the Opera. He had calculated that this was her week. Why had the idea
that he must see her again and at once taken such a firm hold upon him
that, in his impatience to be off, he quite upset both his sister and
Françoise? Was he about to put his threat into practice and insult his
faithless mistress in public? Or did he only wish to feast his eyes once
more on her deceptive beauty before his departure? On the occasion of
his visit to the Gymnase a week ago, after his interview with Colette,
his aim had been clear and definite. It was the outward similarity of
that visit with the step he was now taking that made him feel more
keenly what a change had come over him and his surroundings in such a
short space of time. How hopefully had he then betaken himself to the
theatre, and now in what mood of despair! Why was he going at all?

He asked himself this question as he ascended the grand staircase, but
he felt himself impelled by some force superior to all reason or effort
of will. Since he had seen Suzanne leave the house in the Rue du
Mont-Thabor he had acted like an automaton. He took his seat in the
stalls just as the ballet scene from 'Faust' was drawing to a close. The
first effect produced by the music on his overstrung nerves was a
feeling of almost morbid sadness; tears started to his eyes and dimmed
his vision as he turned his opera-glasses upon Suzanne's box--that box
in which she had looked so divinely modest and pretty on the morrow of
Madame Komof's _soirée_, though not more so than she did now.

To-night she was in blue, with a row of pearls round her fair throat and
diamonds in her golden hair. Another woman, whom René had never seen,
was seated beside her; she was a brunette, dressed in white, and wore a
number of jewels. There were three men behind them. One was unknown to
the poet, the other two were Moraines and Desforges. The unhappy lover
gazed upon the trio before him--the woman sold to this aged libertine,
and the husband who profited by the bargain. At least, René believed
that it was so. This picture of infamy changed his feelings of sadness
into fury. All combined to madden him--indignation at finding such ideal
grace in Suzanne's face when but that afternoon she had hurried home
from her disgusting amours, physical jealousy wrought to its highest
pitch by the presence of the more fortunate rival, lastly a kind of
helpless humiliation at beholding this perfidious mistress happy and
admired, in all the glamour of her queenly beauty, whilst he, her
victim, was almost dying of grief and unavenged.

By the time that the ballet was over René had lashed himself into that
state of fury which in every day language is expressively styled a cool
rage. At such moments, by a contrast similar to that observed in certain
stages of madness, the frenzy of the soul is accompanied by complete
control of the nerves. The individual may come and go, laugh and talk;
he preserves a perfectly calm exterior, and yet inside him there is a
whirlwind of murderous ideas. The most unheard-of proceedings then seem
quite natural as well as the most pronounced cruelties. The poet had
been struck with a sudden idea--to go into Madame Moraines' box and
express to her his contempt! How? That did not trouble him much. All he
knew was that he must ease his mind, whatever the result might be. As he
made his way along the corridor, just then filled with the gilded youth
of Paris, he was so beside himself that he came into collision with
several people, but strode on unheedingly and without proffering a word
of excuse. On reaching the _ouvreuse_, he asked her to show him the
sixth box from the stage on the right.

'The box belonging to Monsieur le Baron Desforges?' said the woman.

'Quite right,' replied René. 'He pays for the theatre, too,' he
thought; 'that's only as it should be.' The door was opened, and in a
trice he had passed through the small ante-room that leads to the box
itself. Moraines turned round and smiled at him in his frank and simple
way. The next moment he was shaking hands with René in English fashion
and saying, 'How d'you do?' as though they were accustomed to meet every
day.

Then, turning to his wife, who had witnessed René's entrance without
betraying the slightest surprise, he said, 'My darling, this is Monsieur
Vincy.'

'I haven't forgotten Monsieur Vincy,' replied Suzanne, receiving her
visitor with a graceful inclination of her head, 'although he seems to
have forgotten me.'

The perfect ease with which she uttered this phrase, the smile that
accompanied it, the painful necessity of shaking hands with this husband
whom he regarded as an accessory to his wife's guilt, and of bowing to
Baron Desforges as well as to the other persons present in the box--all
these details were so strangely out of keeping with the fever consuming
the poet that for a few moments he was quite taken aback. Such is life
in the world of fashion. Tragedies are played in silence, and amidst an
interchange of false compliments, an assumption of meaningless manners,
and an empty show of pleasure. Moraines had offered René a seat behind
Suzanne, and she sat talking to him about his musical tastes with as
much apparent indifference as if this visit were not of terrible
significance for her.

Desforges and Moraines were talking with the other lady, and René could
hear them making remarks concerning the composition of the audience. He
was not accustomed to impose upon himself that self-control which
permits women of fashion to talk of dress or music whilst their hearts
are being torn with anxiety. He stammered forth replies to Suzanne's
words without the least idea of what he was saying. As she bent slightly
forward he inhaled the heliotrope perfume she generally used. It
awakened tender memories within him, and at last he dared to look at
her. He saw her mobile lips, her fair, rose-like complexion, her blue
eyes, her golden hair, her snow-white neck and shoulders over which his
lips had often strayed. In his eyes there was a kind of savage delirium
that almost frightened Madame Moraines. His bare coming had told her
that something extraordinary was taking place, but she was under the
watchful eye of Desforges, and she could not afford to make a single
mistake. On the other hand, the least imprudence on René's part might
ruin her. Her whole life depended upon a word or gesture of the young
poet, and she knew how easily such word or gesture might escape him. She
took up her fan and the lace handkerchief she had laid on the ledge of
the box, and rose.

'It is too warm here,' she said, passing her hand over her eyes and
addressing René, who had risen at the same time. Will you come into the
ante-room? It will be cooler there.'

As soon as they were both seated on the sofa she said aloud, 'Is it long
since you last saw our friend Madame Komof?' Then, in an undertone,
'What is the matter, love? What does this mean?'

'It means,' replied René, in a suppressed voice, 'that I know all, and
that I am come to tell you what I think of you. You need not trouble to
answer. I know all, I tell you--I know at what time you went into the
house in the Rue du Mont-Thabor, at what time you left it, and whom you
met there. Don't lie; I was there--I saw you. This is the last time I
shall ever speak to you, but you understand--you are a wretch, a
miserable wretch!'

Suzanne was fanning herself whilst he flung these terrible phrases at
her. The emotions they aroused did not prevent her from perceiving that
this scene with her enraged lover, who was evidently beside himself,
must be cut short at any price. Bending forward, she called her husband
from the box.

'Paul,' she said, 'have the carriage called. I don't know whether it's
the heat in the house, but I feel quite faint. You will excuse me,
Monsieur Vincy?'

'It's strange,' said Moraines to the poet, who was obliged to leave the
box with the husband, 'she had been so bright all the evening. But these
theatres are very badly ventilated. I am sure she is sorry at being
unable to talk to you, for she is such an admirer of your talent. Come
and see us soon--good-bye!'

And with his usual energy he again shook hands with René, who saw him
disappear towards that part of the vestibule where the footmen stand in
waiting. The orchestra was just attacking the first bars of the fifth
act of 'Faust.' A fresh fit of rage seized the poet, and found vent in
the words which he almost shouted in the now deserted corridor: 'I will
be revenged!'



CHAPTER XVIII

THE HAPPIEST OF THE FOUR


Suzanne knew the Baron's eagle eye too well to imagine that the scene in
the box had entirely escaped him. How much had he seen? What did he
think? These two questions were of capital importance to her. It was
impossible to formulate any reply to them during the few minutes
occupied--she leaning on his arm and he supporting her as though he
really believed her to be ill--in passing from the box to the entrance
reserved for carriages. The Baron's face remained impenetrable and she
herself felt unable to exercise her usual faculties of observation.
René's sudden onslaught had inspired her with such terror and pain that
her indisposition had been a sham only to a certain extent. She had been
afraid that the poet, evidently beside himself, might create a scene and
ruin her for ever. At the same time her sincere and deep-rooted passion
had received a severe blow in this terrible insult and still more
terrible discovery. As she lifted up the train of her dress and
descended the steps in her blue satin shoes she shuddered as we
sometimes do when we escape from a danger which we have had the courage
to brave. A faint smile hovered upon her quivering lips, but her face
was ashy pale, and it was a real relief to her when she sat down in the
corner of her carriage with her husband by her side. Before him, at
least, there was no necessity to control herself. As the horses started
she bent forward to bow her adieux. A gas-lamp shed its light full upon
the Baron's face, which now betrayed his real thoughts. Suzanne read
them in a second.

'He knows all,' she thought. 'What is to be done?'

For a few moments after the carriage had gone Desforges still stood
there twirling his moustache--with him a sign of extraordinary
preoccupation. It being a fine night, he had not ordered his brougham.
It was his custom, when the weather was dry, to walk to his favourite
club in the Rue Boissy-d'Anglas from any place in which he had been
spending the evening--even if such place was some small theatre situated
at the other end of the boulevards. Whilst smoking his third
cigar--Doctor Noirot only allowed him three a day--he loved to stroll
through the streets of that Paris which he justly prided himself upon
knowing and enjoying as well as anyone. Desforges was no cosmopolitan,
and had a horror of travelling, which he called 'a life of luggage.'
This promenade in the evening was his delight. He utilised it for
'making up his balance'--that was his expression--for going over the
different events of the day, placing his receipts in one column and his
expenses in another. 'Massage, fencing, and morning ride,' were put down
in the column of receipts to the credit of his health. 'Drinking
burgundy or port'--his pet sin--'or eating truffles or seeing Suzanne'
went into the column of expenditure. When he had indulged in some
trifling excess that contravened his well-regulated lines of conduct he
would carefully weigh the pros and cons, and conclude by pronouncing
with the solemnity of a judge whether 'it was worth it' or 'not worth
it.'

This Paris, too, in which he had dwelt since his earliest youth, always
awakened in him memories of the past. His cynicism went hand in hand
with cunning, and he practised only the Epicureanism of the senses. He
was a master in the art of enjoying happy hours long after they had
passed. In such a house, for instance, he had had appointments with a
charming mistress; another recalled to his mind exquisite dinners in
good company. 'We ought to make ourselves four stomachs, like oxen, to
ruminate,' he used to say; 'that is their only good point, and I have
taken it them.'

But when the Moraines had driven away in their brougham on this mild and
balmy May evening he began his walk, a prey to most sad and bitter
impressions, although the day had been a particularly pleasant one until
René Vincy's entry in the box. Suzanne had not been mistaken. He knew
all. The poet's visit had struck him all the more forcibly since, that
very afternoon, on leaving the house in the Rue de Rivoli, he had found
himself face to face with the young man, who stared hard at him. 'Where
the deuce have I seen that fellow before?' he had asked himself in vain.
'Where could my senses have been?' he said, when Paul Moraines mentioned
René's name to Suzanne. The expression on the visitor's face had
immediately aroused his suspicions; when Suzanne went into the ante-room
he had placed himself so as to follow the interview from the corner of
his eye. Without hearing what the poet said, he had guessed by the look
in his eyes, the frown on his brow, and the gestures of his hands that
he was taking Suzanne to task. The feigned indisposition of the latter
had not deceived him for a single moment. He was one of those who only
believe in women's headaches when there is nothing to be gained by them.
The manner in which his mistress's hand trembled on his arm as they
descended the staircase had strengthened his convictions, and now, as he
crossed the Place de l'Opéra, he told himself the most mortifying
truths instead of going into his usual raptures before the vast
perspective of the avenue, but lately lighted by electricity, or before
the façade of the Opera, which he declared to be finer than Notre Dame.

'I have been let in,' he said, 'and at my age, too! It's rather too
bad--and for whom?' All combined to render his humiliation more
complete--the absolute secresy with which Suzanne had deceived him, and
without arousing the slightest suspicion; the startling suddenness of
the discovery; lastly, the quality of his rival, a bit of a boy, a
scribbling poet! A score of details, one more exasperating than the
other, crowded in upon him. The forlorn and bashful look on the poet's
face when he had seen him on the day after Madame Komof's _soirée_;
Suzanne's inexplicable fits of abstraction, which he had scarcely
noticed at the time and her allusions to matutinal visits to the
dentist's, the Louvre, or the Bon Marché. And he had swallowed it
all--he, Baron Desforges!

'I have been an ass!' he repeated aloud. 'But how did she manage it?' It
was this that completely floored him; he could not understand how she
had gone about it, even when René's attitude in the box left him no
doubt as to their relations. No, there was no possibility of doubt.

Had Suzanne not been his mistress he would never have dared to speak to
her as he did, nor would she have allowed it. 'But how?' he asked
himself; 'she never received him at home, or I should have known it
through Paul. She did not see him out; he goes nowhere.' Once more he
repeated, 'I have been an ass!' and felt really angry with the woman who
was the cause of his perturbation. He had just passed the Café de la
Paix and had to brush aside two women who accosted him in their usual
shameless manner. 'Bah!' he exclaimed; 'they are all alike.' He walked
on for a few paces and saw that he had let his cigar go out. He threw it
away with a gesture of impatience. 'And cigars are like women.' Then he
shrugged his shoulders as it occurred to him how childishly he was
behaving. 'Frédéric, my dear fellow,' whispered an inner voice, 'you
have been an ass, and you are continuing the _rôle._' He took a fresh
cigar from his case, held it to his ear as he cracked it, and went into
a cigar-shop for a light. The havana proved to be delicious, and the
Baron, a connoisseur, thoroughly enjoyed it. 'I was wrong,' he thought;
'here is one that is not a fraud.'

The soothing effect of the cigar changed the tenour of his ideas.

He looked about him and saw that he had almost reached the end of the
boulevard. The pavement was as crowded as at midday, and the carriages
and cabs went hurrying by. The gas-lamps glinted upon the young foliage
of the trees in a fantastic manner, and on the right the dark mass of
the Madeleine stood out against the dark blue sky studded with stars.
This Parisian picture pleased the Baron, who continued his reflections
in a calmer frame of mind. 'Hang it all!' he cried; 'can it be that I am
jealous?' As a rule he shook his head whenever he was treated to an
example of that mournful passion, and would generally reply, 'They pay
your mistress attentions! But that is merely a compliment to your good
taste.' 'I, jealous! Well, that would be good!'

When we have accustomed ourselves to play a certain part in the eyes of
the world for years together we continue to play it even when alone.
Desforges was ashamed of his weakness--like an officer who, sent out on
a night expedition, blushes to find himself afraid and refuses to admit
the presence of that feeling. 'It is not true,' he said to himself; 'I
am not jealous.' He conjured up a vision of Suzanne in René's arms, and
it tickled his vanity to feel that the picture, though not a pleasant
one, did not cause him one of those fits of intense pain that constitute
jealousy. By way of contrast, he recalled the poet's entry in the box,
his agitated manner, and the unconquerable frenzy that betrayed itself
in every lineament. There you had a really jealous man, exposed to the
full fury of that terrible mania.

The antithesis between the relative calm he felt within him and his
rival's despair was so flattering to the Baron's vanity that for a
moment he was absolutely happy. He caught himself making use of his
customary expression, one he had inherited from his father, a clever
speculator, who had again had it from his mother, a fine Normandy woman
who had linked her fortunes with those of the first Baron Desforges, a
Prefect under the _grand empereur_, 'Gumption! Why should I be jealous?
In what has Suzanne deceived me? Did I expect her to love me with a love
such as this fool of a poet no doubt dreamt of? What could a man of more
than fifty ask of her? To be kind and amiable? That she has been. To
afford me an opportunity of spending my evenings agreeably? She has done
so. Well, what then? She has met a strapping youth, a bit wild, with a
fresh-looking complexion, and a fine pair of lips. As she couldn't very
well ask me to get him for her, she has indulged in a little luxury on
her own account. But, of the two of us, I should say that he is the
cuckold!'

This reflection, so purely Gallic in form, occurred to him just as he
reached the door of his club. The plain language in which it had found
expression relieved him for a moment. 'That's all very well,' he
thought; 'but what would Crucé say?' The adroit collector had once sold
him a worthless daub at an exorbitant figure, and Desforges had ever
since entertained for him that mixture of respect and resentment felt by
very clever men for those who have duped them well. He drew a picture of
the small club-room and the cunning Crucé relating Suzanne's adventure
with René to two or three of his most envious colleagues. The idea was
so hateful to the Baron that it stopped him from entering the club, and
he walked away in the direction of the Champs-Elysées trying to shake
off its influence. 'Bah! Neither Crucé nor the others will know
anything of it. It's lucky after all that she didn't hit upon any of
these men about town.' He threw a glance at the club windows that looked
out upon the Place de la Concorde, and which were all lit up. 'Instead
of that she has taken some one who is not in Society, whom I never meet,
and whom she has neither patronised nor presented. I must do her the
justice to admit that she has been very considerate. Her trepidation,
too, just now, was entirely on my account. Poor little woman!'

'Poor little woman!' he repeated, continuing his soliloquy under the
trees of the avenue. 'This beast is capable of making her repent her
caprice most bitterly. He seemed in a pretty rage to-night! What want of
taste and manners! In my box, too! What irony! If this good Paul were
not the husband I have made him, she would be a ruined woman. And then
he has discovered the secret of our meetings, and we shall have to leave
the Rue du Mont-Thabor. No--the fellow is impossible!' This was one of
his favourite expressions. A fresh fit of ill humour had seized him,
this time directed against the poet, but, as he prided himself upon
being a man of sense and upon his clear-sightedness, he suppressed it at
once. 'Am I going to be angry with him for being jealous of me? That
would be the height of folly! Let me rather think upon what he is likely
to do. Blackmail! No. He is too young for that. An article in some
paper? A poet with pretensions to sentiment--that won't be in his line.
I wonder whether his indignation will lead him to cast her off
altogether? That seems too good to be true. A young scribbler, as poor
as a church mouse, shall give up a beautiful and loving mistress,
surrounded by all the refinements of luxury, who costs him nothing! Get
out! But what if he asks her to break with me, and she is foolish enough
to yield?' He saw at once and clearly what disturbance such a rupture
would create in his life. 'Firstly, there would be the loss of Suzanne,
and where should I find another so charming, so sprightly, so accustomed
to my ways and habits? Then, again, I should have to find something to
do in the evenings, to say nothing of the fact that I have no better
friend in Paris than this excellent Paul.' To remove his fears
concerning these contingencies he was obliged to recapitulate the bonds
of interest that made him indispensable to the Moraines. 'No,' he
concluded, as he reached the door of his mansion in the Cours-la-Reine,
'he will not let her go, she will not give me up, and everything will
come right. Everything always comes right in the end.'

This assurance and philosophy were probably not so sincere as the
Baron's vanity--his only weakness--would have him believe, and for the
first time in his life he got out of patience with his valet, a pupil of
his who for years had helped him to undress. Though he was still anxious
about the future, and more inwardly upset than he cared to admit, this
easy-going egoist nevertheless slept right off for seven hours,
according to his wont. Thanks to a life of moderate and continual
activity, to a careful system of diet, to absolute regularity in rising
and retiring, and, above all, to the care he took to rid his brain at
midnight of all troublesome thoughts, he had acquired such a fixed habit
of dropping off to sleep at the same hour that nothing less than the
announcement of another Commune--the most terrible calamity he could
think of--would have kept him awake. On opening his eyes in the morning,
his mind refreshed by his recuperative slumbers, all irritation was so
completely dispelled that he recalled the events of the preceding night
with a smile.

'I am sure that _he_ has not done as much,' he said to himself, thinking
of the sleepless hours that René must have spent, 'nor Suzanne
either'--she had been so agitated--'nor Moraines.' An indisposition of
his wife's always turned that poor fellow upside down. 'What a fine
title for a play--"The happiest of the four!" I must take credit for its
invention.' His joke pleased him immensely, and when Doctor Noirot,
during the process of massage, had said to him, 'Monsieur le Baron's
muscles are in excellent condition this morning; they are as healthy,
supple, and firm as those of a man of thirty,' the sensation of
well-being abolished the last traces of his ill humour.

He had now but one idea--how to prevent last night's scene from bringing
any change into his comfortable existence, so well adapted to his dear
person. He thought of it as he drank his chocolate, a kind of light and
fragrant froth which his valet prepared according to the precepts of a
master of the culinary art. He thought of it as he galloped through the
Bois on this bright spring morning. He thought of it as he sat down to
luncheon about half-past twelve opposite the old aunt whose duties
consisted of looking after the linen, the silver, and the servants'
accounts, until such time as she should be called upon to look after
him. He decided to adopt the principle of every wise policy, both public
and private--to wait! 'Better give the young man time to make a fool of
himself and slip away of his own accord. I must be very kind, and
pretend I have seen nothing.'

Turning this resolve over in his mind, he made his way on foot to the
Rue Murillo about two o'clock. He stopped before the shop window of an
art dealer whom he knew very well, and his eyes fell upon a Louis XVI.
watch, its chased gold case set in a wreath of roses and bearing a
charming miniature. 'An excellent means,' he thought, 'of proving to her
that I am for the _status quo._' He bought the pretty toy at a reasonable
price, and congratulated himself upon its acquisition when, on entering
Suzanne's little _salon_, he saw how anxiously she had awaited his
coming. Her careworn look and her pallor told him that she must have
spent the night in concocting plans to get out of the dilemma into which
the scene with René had led her, and by the way in which she eyed him
the Baron saw that she knew she had not escaped his perspicacity. This
compliment was like balm to his wounded vanity, and he felt real
pleasure in handing her the case containing the little bauble with the
words, 'How do you like this?'

'It is charming,' said Suzanne; 'the shepherd and shepherdess are most
life-like.'

'Yes,' replied Desforges; 'they almost look as though they were singing
the romance of those days:


'I gave up all for fickle Sylvia's sake,
She leaves me now and takes another swain . . .'


His fine and well-trained tenor voice had once gained him some success
in the drawing-rooms, and he hummed the refrain of the well-known lament
with a variation of his own:


'Love's pangs last but a moment,
Love's pleasures last for life . . .'


'If you will place this shepherd and shepherdess on a corner of your
table, they will be better than with me.'

'How you spoil me!' said Suzanne, with some embarrassment.

'No,' replied Desforges, 'I spoil myself. Am I not your friend before
all else?' Then, kissing her hand, he added in a serious tone that
contrasted with his usual bantering accents, 'And you will never have a
better.'

That was all. One word more and he would have compromised his dignity.
One word less and Suzanne might have believed him her dupe. She felt
deeply grateful for the consideration with which he had treated her--the
more so since that consideration left her free to devote her mind to
René. All her thoughts had been concentrated during her sleepless night
upon this one question--how to manage the one while keeping the other,
now that the two men had seen and understood each other? Break with the
Baron? She had thought of it, but how could it be done? She saw herself
caught in the web of lies which she had spun for her husband this many a
year. Their mode of life could not be kept up without the aid of her
rich lover. To break with him was to condemn herself to immediately seek
a new relationship of the same kind. On the other hand, to keep
Desforges meant breaking with René. The Baron, she had said to herself,
would never understand that in loving another she was not robbing him of
a whit of affection. Do men ever admit such truths? And now he was kind
and considerate enough not even to mention whatever he had noticed.
Never, even when paying the heaviest bills, had he appeared so generous
as at that moment, when, by his attitude, he allowed her to devote
herself to the task of winning back her young lover and the kisses she
neither could nor would do without.

'He is right,' she said to herself when Desforges had gone; 'he is my
best friend.' And immediately, with that marvellous facility women
possess for indulging in fresh hopes on the slightest provocation, she
was ready to believe that matters would arrange themselves as easily on
the other side. As she lay at full length on the sofa, her fingers idly
toying with the pretty little watch, her thoughts were busied with the
poet and with the means she should employ to win him back. She must
examine the situation carefully and look it full in the face. What did
René know? This first point had been already answered by himself; he
had seen both her and the Baron come out of the house in the Rue du
Mont-Thabor. Now Desforges, from motives of prudence, never went out the
same way as she did. René must therefore know of the existence of the
two exits. Had he seen her leave her carriage and walk as far as the
entrance in the Rue de Rivoli. It was very probable. If chance alone had
brought him into contact with her first, and then with the Baron, he
could have drawn no conclusions from the double meeting. No, he must
have watched her and followed her. But what had induced him to do so? At
their last interview at the beginning of the week she had left him so
reassured, so full of love and happiness! There was only one thing that
could possibly have caused a revival of suspicion so violent as to lead
him to watch her movements--Claude's return. Once more a feeling of rage
against that individual came over her.

'If it is to him that I owe this fresh alarm, he shall pay for it,' she
thought. But she soon returned to the real danger, which, for the
moment, was of more importance to her than her rancour against the
imprudent Larcher. The fact remained that in some way or other René had
detected the secret of her meetings with Desforges, and this evidently
caused him such intense pain that he had been compelled to fling his
discovery at her as soon as it was made. His mad conduct at the Opera
was but a proof of love, though it had nearly ruined her, and, instead
of her being angry with him for it, she only cherished him the more. His
passion was a sign of her power over him, and she concluded that a lover
who loved so madly would not be difficult to win back. Only she must see
him, speak to him, and explain her visit to the Rue du Mont-Thabor with
her own lips. She could say that she had gone to see a sick friend who
was also a friend of the Baron's. But what of the carriage sent back
from Galignani's? She had wanted to walk a little way. But the two
entrances? So many houses are built like that. She had had too much
experience of René's confiding nature to doubt that she would convince
him somehow or other. He had simply been overwhelmed at the moment by
proofs that corroborated his suspicions, and was probably already
doubtful and pleading with himself the cause of his love.

Her reflections had carried her as far as this when her carriage was
announced. The desire to get René back had taken such a hold upon her,
and she was, moreover, so convinced that her presence would overcome all
resistance, that a bold plan suddenly occurred to her. Why should she
not see the poet at once? Why not, now that she had nothing to fear from
Desforges? In love quarrels the quickest reconciliations are the best.
Would he have the courage to repulse her if she came to him in the
little room that had witnessed her first visit, bringing him a fresh and
indisputable proof of love? She would say, 'You have insulted,
slandered, and tortured me--yet I could not bear to think you in doubt
and pain--and I came!' No sooner had she grasped the possibility of
taking this decisive step than she clung to it as if it were a sure way
out of the anguish that had tortured her since the preceding evening.
She dressed so hurriedly that she quite astonished her maid, and yet she
had never looked prettier than in the light grey gown she had chosen.
Without a moment's hesitation, she told her coachman to drive to the Rue
Coëtlogon. To that point had this woman, generally so circumspect and
so careful of appearances, come.

'Just for once!' she said to herself as her brougham rolled along; 'I
shall get there quicker.' The ideas of worldly prudence had soon made
way for others. 'I wonder whether René is at home? Of course he is. He
is waiting for a letter from me, or for some sign of my existence.' It
was almost the same question she had asked herself and the same answer
she had given on the occasion of her first visit in March, two months
and a half before. By the difference in her feelings she could measure
the progress she had made since that time. Then, she had hastened to the
poet's dwelling in obedience to a violent caprice--but still only a
caprice. Now, it was love that coursed through her veins, the love that
thirsts for love in return, that sees nought else in the world but the
object it desires, and that would unflinchingly make for its goal under
the cannon's mouth. She loved now with all her body and soul; she had
proofs of it in her unreasonable impatience to get along still faster
and in her fears that the step she had taken might be in vain. Her
agitation was intense when the carriage stopped at the gate that barred
the entrance to the street. The latter, thanks to the trees whose
foliage overtopped the garden wall on the right, looked fresh and green
in the soft sunlight of this bright May afternoon.

She had undoubtedly been less moved on the former occasion when asking
the _concierge_ whether M. Vincy was at home. The man told her that he
was in. She rang the bell, and, as before, the sound of it caused a
thrill to run through her from head to foot. She heard a door open and
light footsteps approaching. Remembering the heavy tread she had once
heard in the same place, she concluded that the person now coming to the
door was neither the maid nor René; the footfall of the latter she knew
too well. She had a presentiment that she was about to face her lover's
sister--the woman whose absence had favoured her former visit. She had
no time to think of the drawbacks of this unexpected incident, for
Madame Fresneau had already opened the door. Her face left Suzanne no
doubt as to her identity, so great was the resemblance between the
brother and sister. Neither had Emilie any hesitation in deciding who
the visitor was. The sight of René's fresh sufferings during the past
few days, added to the information she had gleaned from Claude, had
intensified her hatred towards Madame Moraines, and as she replied to
Suzanne's question she could not help giving her words a tone of bitter
and unconcealed hostility.

'No, madame, my brother is not in.' Then, her sisterly affection
suggesting a way to avoid all further questions as to the time of
René's return, she added: 'He left town this morning.'

The reply given her by the _concierge_ told Suzanne that this was a lie,
but she had no reason for believing the lie to be an invention of
Emilie's. She was obliged to believe, and did believe, that Madame
Fresneau was obeying the orders given her by her brother. She tried to
learn nothing further, a graceful inclination of her head in the very
best form being the only revenge she took for the almost rude manners of
the _bourgeoise._ Her outward calm, however, hid a great deal of
disappointment and real pain. She did not stop to ask herself whether
Emilie's strange behaviour was due to René's indiscreet confidences or
not. She merely said to herself, 'He does not wish to see me again,' and
that idea hurt her deeply. On reaching the street she turned to cast a
glance at the window of the room into which she had once made her way,
and remembered how, on that occasion, she had also looked round on
leaving, and had seen the poet standing behind the half-drawn blinds.
Would he not take up the same position to see her go when his sister
told him who had called? She stood waiting for five minutes, and the
fact of the blinds remaining down was a source of fresh grief to her. As
she got into her brougham she was as agitated as only a woman can be who
loves sincerely and who is obliged to be incessantly changing her plans.
After turning the matter over again and again, she, who never wrote,
decided to send the following letter:


Saturday, 5 o'clock.

'Dear René,--I called at your house, and your sister told me you had
left town. But I know that is not true. You were there, only a few yards
away from me, in that room where every object must have reminded you of
my former visit, and yet you would not see me. You can surely have no
doubts of my sincerity on that occasion? Why should I have acted a lie?
I entreat you to let me see you, if it be only for a minute. Come and
read in my eyes what you swore never to doubt--that you are my all, my
life, my heaven. Since last night I am as one dead. Your horrible words
are continually in my ears. It cannot be you who spoke them. Where could
you have got that bitterness, almost akin to hatred? How can you condemn
me unheard on a suspicion for which you will blush when I have proved to
you how false it is? I ought, it is true, to be indignant and angry with
you, but my heart, dear René, contains only love for you, and a desire
to efface from your soul all that the enemies of our happiness have
engraved there. The step I took this morning, though contrary to all
that a woman owes herself, I took so cheerfully that, had you seen me,
you could have had no doubt respecting the sentiments that animate me.
Send me no answer. I feel even as I write how powerless a letter is to
describe the feelings of the heart. I shall expect you on Monday at
eleven in _our sanctuary._ It should be my right to tell you I demand to
see you there, for those accused have always the right to defend
themselves. I will only say, Come, if you ever loved, even for a day,
the woman who has never told you and never will tell you aught but the
truth. I swear it, my only love.'


When Suzanne had finished her letter she read it over. A lingering
instinct of prudence made her hesitate before signing it, but the
sincerity of her passion caused her to blush for her momentary weakness,
and, taking up her pen, she wrote her name at the bottom of this
faithful description of the strange moral condition into which she had
drifted. She lied once more in swearing that she spoke the truth, and
yet nothing was truer, more spontaneous, and less artificial than the
feelings which dictated the supreme deception that capped all the rest.
She summoned her footman, and, again scorning all ideas of prudence,
told him to give the letter--any single sentence in which would have
ruined her--to a commissionaire for immediate delivery. During the
thirty-six hours that separated her from the rendez-vous she had fixed
she lived in a state of nervous excitement of which she would never have
deemed herself capable.

This woman, who had such perfect control over herself, and who had
entered upon this adventure with the same Machiavelian _sangfroid_ she
had maintained in all her Society relations for years, now felt
powerless to follow, or even to form, any kind of plan respecting the
attitude to be assumed towards her lover. She was to dine out that
night, but she went through the process of dressing in an absolutely
listless way--an unusual thing for her--and without even looking in the
glass. During the whole of the dinner she found not a word to say to her
neighbour, the ubiquitous Crucé, and her brougham had been ordered for
ten o'clock on the plea that she was still suffering from her
indisposition of the preceding evening. On her way home she paid not the
slightest attention to her husband's words; his very presence was
intolerable to her, for it was on his account, remaining at home as he
did on Sundays, that she had been obliged to put off her meeting with
René until Monday. Would the poet consent to come? How anxiously, as
the servant helped her off with her cloak, did she scan the tray on
which were placed the letters that had come by the evening post! The
poet's writing was not to be seen on any envelope. She spent the whole
of Sunday in bed, under pretext of a bad headache, but in reality trying
to think out some plan in case René refused to believe her story of a
sick friend as an explanation of her visit to the Rue du Mont-Thabor.

But he would believe it. She could not admit to herself that he would
not; the supposition was too painful. Her fever of longing and suspense,
of hope and fear, reached its climax on Monday morning as she ascended
the stairs of the house in the Rue des Dames. If René were waiting for
her, hidden, as usual, behind the half-open door, it would prove that
her letter had conquered him, and in that case she was saved. But
no--the door was closed. Her hand trembled as she inserted the key in
the lock. She entered the first room and found it empty and the blinds
drawn. She sat down in the semi-darkness and gazed upon the objects that
recalled a happiness so recent and yet already so far away. There was
just the ordinary furniture of a modest drawing-room--a few arm-chairs
and a sofa in blue velvet, with antimacassars carefully hung at the
proper height. The handful of books René had brought were ranged in
perfect order on a well-dusted shelf, and the worthy landlady had even
taken care that the gilt clock, with its figure of Penelope, had been
kept going.

Suzanne listened to the swing of the pendulum as it broke the silence in
the apartment. Seconds passed, then minutes, then quarters, and still
René did not come. He would not come now. As this fact dawned upon her
Madame Moraines, accustomed from her earliest youth to having all her
wishes gratified, was seized with a fit of real despair. She began to
weep like a child, and her tears fell faster and faster, unaccompanied
now by any thoughts of simulation. She felt a desire to write, but no
sooner had she found some paper in the blotting-book left by her lover
and dipped the pen in the ink than she pushed the things away,
exclaiming, 'What is the good of it?' To show that she had been there in
case René should come after she was gone she left behind her the
scented handkerchief with which she had dried her bitter tears. She
murmured to herself, 'He used to like this scent!' and by the side of
the handkerchief she laid the gloves that he had always buttoned for her
as she was going. Then, with a heavy heart, she left the room in which
she had been so happy. Could it be possible that those happy hours had
gone--and for ever?



CHAPTER XIX

ALL OR NOTHING


The Fresneau family were at dinner when the commissionaire delivered
Suzanne's letter. Françoise entered, holding the dainty envelope in her
great red hand, and the expression on René's face as he tore it open
sufficed to tell Emilie from whom the missive came. She trembled. The
sight of her brother's wild despair had emboldened her to refuse
admission to the unknown visitor whom she had instinctively recognised
as its undoubted cause, the dangerous woman Claude Larcher had spoken of
as the most wanton creature living. But to face René's anger and tell
him what she had done was beyond her strength, and she postponed the
unpleasant step from hour to hour. The look her brother gave her after
reading the letter made her drop her eyes and colour to the roots of her
hair. Fresneau, who was carving a fowl with rare ability--he had learnt
the art, a strange one for him, at his father's table in days gone
by--was so struck by the expression on his brother-in-law's face that he
sat staring at him with a wing stuck on the point of his fork. Then,
being afraid that his wife had noticed his surprise, he broke out into a
laugh and tried to excuse his momentary abstraction by saying, 'This
knife will cut butter.'

His jocular remark was followed by a silence that lasted until dinner
was over--a silence threatening to Emilie, inexplicable to Fresneau, and
unperceived by René, who was almost choking and did not eat a mouthful.
Hardly had Françoise removed the cloth and placed the tobacco bowl and
the decanter of brandy on the table when the poet went off to his room,
after having asked the maid to light him a lamp.

'He looks annoyed, doesn't he?' observed the professor.

'Annoyed?' replied Emilie. 'Some idea for his play has probably occurred
to him, and he wants to put it into writing at once. But it's a bad
thing to work immediately after dinner--I'll go and tell him so.'

Glad to have found some excuse, Emilie went into her brother's room. She
found him scribbling a reply to Suzanne's note in the twilight, without
even waiting for the lamp. He was no doubt expecting his sister to come
in, for he said roughly and in an angry tone; 'Oh, there you are! Some
one called to see me to-day, and you said I was out of town?'

'René,' said Emilie, joining her hands, 'forgive me; I thought I was
doing right. I was afraid of your seeing this woman in your present
state.' Then, finding strength in the ardour of her affection to bare
her inmost thoughts, she went on, 'This woman is your evil genius----'

'It seems,' cried the poet, with suppressed rage, 'that you still take
me for a child of fifteen. Am I at home here--yes or no?' he shouted,
bursting out. 'If I cannot do as I like, say so, and I'll go and live
elsewhere. I have had enough of this coddling, you understand. Look
after your son and your husband, and let me do as I like.'

He saw his sister standing there before him pale and overcome by the
harsh words he had used. He was himself ashamed of his outburst. It was
so unjust to make poor Emilie atone for the pain that was gnawing at his
heart. But he was not in a mood just then for acknowledging himself in
the wrong, and, instead of taking in his arms the woman he had so
cruelly wounded in her most sensitive parts, he left the room, closing
the door behind him with a bang. He snatched up his hat in the
ante-room, and from the place where he had left her, trembling with
agitation, Emilie could hear him leave the house.

The worthy Fresneau, who, after listening in amazement to René's
excited accents, had also heard the noise of his departure, now entered
the room to learn what had happened. He saw his wife standing there in
the semi-darkness like one dead. Seizing her hands, he cried, 'What's
the matter?' in such an affectionate tone that she flung her arms round
his neck and cried out amidst her sobs:

'_Mon ami_--I have no one but you in the world!'

She lay there weeping, with her head on her husband's shoulder, whilst
the poor fellow scarcely knew whether to curse or bless his
brother-in-law, his despair at his wife's grief and his joy at seeing
her fly to him for comfort being equally great.

'Come, come,' he said, 'don't be silly. Tell me what has taken place
between you.'

'He has no heart, he has no heart,' was all the answer he could get.

'Nonsense, nonsense!' he replied, adding, with that clear-sightedness
which true affection brings to the dullest, 'He knows how much you love
him, and he abuses his knowledge--that's all!'

Whilst Fresneau was consoling Emilie as well as he could, though without
getting her to divulge the secret of her quarrel with the poet, the
latter was striding along the streets a prey to a fresh attack of that
grief which had tortured his soul for the past twenty-four hours.
Suzanne had been right in thinking that a voice within him would plead
against what he knew--against what he had seen. Who that has loved and
been betrayed has not heard that voice which reasons against all reason
and bids us hope against all hope? Faith has gone for ever, but how
pleased we should be to find ourselves again at the stage of doubt! How
regretfully we then recall as some happy period the cruel days when
suspicion had not yet grown into horrible and unbearable certainty!

René would have purchased with his blood the shadow of the shadow of a
doubt, but the more he dwelt upon all the details that had led to his
conviction the more firmly did that conviction take root in his heart.
'But if she had been paying a harmless visit?' hazarded the voice of
love. Harmless? Would she have concealed her destination from her
coachman? Would she have gone out by the other door, thickly veiled,
walking straight before her, but looking furtively about her just as she
did on leaving him? And then the appearance of Desforges almost
immediately after at the other entrance! . . . All the proofs brought
forward by Claude occurred to him one after another--the Society
rumours, the recent ruin of the Moraines, the post obtained for the
husband, the suggestion made to him by Suzanne for purchasing shares,
and her lies, now proved to be such. 'What more positive proofs can I
have,' he asked himself, 'except one?' And as the terrible vision of
Suzanne in the arms of her aged lover rose up before him he closed his
eyes in pain. Then came thoughts of her visit to the Rue Coëtlogon and
of the letter he had in his pocket. 'And she dares ask to see me? What
can she have to say? I will go, as she asks, and take my revenge by
insulting her as Claude insults Colette. . . . No,' he continued, 'that
would be degrading myself to her level; true revenge consists in
ignoring her. I shall not go.'

He wavered between these two decisions, feeling quite powerless to make
up his mind, so intense was his longing to see Suzanne once more and so
sincere his resolution not to be duped again by her lies. His perplexity
became so great that he resolved to go and ask Claude's advice. Now only
did he begin to feel some surprise that this faithful friend had not
sent to inquire about him in the morning, as he had promised to do.

'I'll go and call on him, although he'll probably not be in,' said René
as he bent his steps towards the Rue de Varenne. It was about half-past
ten when he rang the ponderous bell of the Sainte-Euverte mansion. There
was a light burning in one of the apartments occupied by Claude, who,
contrary to René's expectations, was not out. The poet found him in the
smoking-room, the first of the small set at the top of the stairs. A
lamp with a pink globe shed a soft light round the apartment, the walls
of which were adorned with a large piece of tapestry and a copy of the
'Triumph of Death' attributed to Orcagna. In a corner of the room the
bluish flame of a spirit lamp was burning under a small tea kettle;
this, with the two cups, a decanter of sherry, and some _bouchées au
foie gras_ on a china dish were proofs that the occupant of this quiet
abode expected a visitor. A bundle of small Russian cigarettes with long
mouthpieces--Colette's favourites--plainly revealed to René who that
visitor was. He would still have hesitated to believe his own eyes had
not Claude, in evident embarrassment, said, with a shamefaced smile:

'After all, it's as well that you should know it--_canis reversus ad
vomitum suum._ Yes, I am expecting Colette. She is coming here after the
theatre. Do you object to meeting her?'

'Candidly,' replied René, 'I prefer not to see her.'

'And how do matters stand with you?' asked Claude.

After the poet had briefly acquainted him with the present position, the
scene at the Opera, Suzanne's visit, and her request for a meeting,
Larcher rejoined: 'What can I say to you? Have I the right to advise
you, weak as I am myself? But does that really matter? I can see my own
follies clearly enough, although I am continually stumbling like a blind
man. Why, then, should I not see clearly for you, who have perhaps more
energy than I? You are younger, and have never stumbled yet. . . . It
comes to this. Have you resolved to become, like me, an erotic maniac, a
madman ruled only by sexual passion, and--worse than all--a wretch
sensible of his own degradation? Then keep this appointment. Suzanne
will give you no reasons, not one. Don't you see that if she were
innocent the very sight of you would be hateful to her after what you
have said? She came to your house. Why? To blind you once more with her
beauty. Now she summons you to the very place where you will be least
able to resist that beauty. She will say what women always say in these
cases. Words--and words--and words again. But you will see her, you will
hear the rustle of her skirts. And, believe me, there is no love-potion
so powerful as treachery! You will feel the truth of this when you
stifle her with savage and brutish embraces--and then, good-bye to
reproaches! Everything is forgotten. But what follows? You saw how brave
I was yesterday. See what a coward I am to-day, and say to yourself,
like the workman who sees his drunken comrade staggering helplessly
along, "That's how I shall be on Sunday!" If, after all, you feel unable
to do without her--if you must have her, as the drunkard must have his
wine--you will find solace in this cowardice, even though it kill you.
That solace I have found. Glut yourself with this woman's love. It will
rid you either of your love for her or of your self-respect. You will
learn to treat Suzanne exactly as I treat Colette. But remember what I
have told you to-night--it is the end of all. Talent I no longer
possess. Honour! What should I do with it, having forgiven what I have
forgiven? My poor boy,' he concluded in tones of entreaty, 'you can
still save yourself. You are at the top of the ladder that leads down to
the sewer--listen to the cry of an unhappy wretch who is up to his neck
in filth at the bottom. And now, good-bye, if you don't want to see
Colette. Why did she tell you what she did? You knew nothing, and where
ignorance is bliss---- Good-bye once more, old man. Think of me and pity
me!'

'No,' said the poet, as he made his way home, 'I will not descend to
such depths.' For the first time perhaps since witnessing Claude's
unhappy passion he really understood the nature of his wretched friend's
malady. He had just discovered in himself feelings identical to those
which had made such an abject slave of Colette's lover--a mingling of
utter contempt and ardent physical longing for a woman justly tried and
condemned. Yes, in spite of all he had learnt he still desired
Suzanne--still desired those lips kissed by Desforges and all that
beauty which the hoary libertine had stained but not destroyed. It was
that fair white flesh that troubled his senses now--nought but that
flesh! To this had come his noble love, his worship of her whom he had
once called his Madonna. Claude was right: if he yielded to this base
longing but once, all would be lost. His loathing for the slough of
corruption in which his friend was helplessly struggling was so intense
that it gave him strength to say, 'I pledge myself not to go to the Rue
des Dames on Monday,' and he knew he would keep his word.

Whilst Suzanne was undergoing the tortures of hope and despair in the
little blue _salon_ on the appointed morning René too was suffering
intensely, but it was in his own room. 'I won't go--I won't go!' he
muttered repeatedly. Then he thought of his friend, and he sighed 'Poor
Claude!' as he fully realised the position of the man who had been
beaten in the struggle in which he himself was now engaged. He pitied
himself whilst pitying Colette's victim, and this pity, as well as his
old and long-continued religious habits, aided his courage. For some
time now he had refrained from all observances, and had surrendered
himself to those doubts which all modern writers entertain more or less
before returning to Christianity as the sole source of spiritual life.
But even during the period of doubt the moral muscle, developed by
exercise in childhood and youth, continues to put forth its strength. In
his resistance to the most pressing calls of passion, the nephew and
pupil of the Abbé Taconet once more found this power at his service.
When the last stroke of twelve had died away he said to himself,
'Suzanne has gone home--I am saved.'

Saved he was not, and his inability to follow Claude's advice to the
letter ought to have convinced him of this. Neither on the Monday nor
the following days could he summon up sufficient courage to leave the
city that contained the woman from whom he now both wished and thought
himself freed. He invented all kinds of shallow pretexts for remaining
in Paris. 'I am as far from her in this room as I should be in Rome or
Venice; I shall not go to her, and she will not come here.' In reality,
he was expecting--he scarce knew what. He only knew that his passion was
too intense to die in this way. A meeting would take place between
Suzanne and himself. How or where mattered little, but it would
certainly take place. He would not confess to this cowardly and secret
hope, but it had taken such hold upon him that he remained a prisoner in
the Rue Coëtlogon in hourly expectation of receiving another letter or
of finding himself the object of some last attempt. No letter came, no
attempt was made, and his heart grew heavier within him.

At times this desire to see Suzanne once more--a desire he felt, but
would not admit--drove him to his writing-table, where he would sit and
indite page after page of the wildest sentiment to the abandoned
creature. His pent-up rage found vent in the mad lines in which he both
insulted and idolised her, and in which terms of endearment mingled with
words of hatred. Then Claude's piteous laments would re-echo in his
ears, and he would tear up the paper as he stifled an answering wail
that rose within him. He lay down at night with despair in his heart,
thinking of death as the only thing to be desired. He rose, and his
thoughts were unchanged. The bright days, so glorious in the budding
time of Nature, were to him intolerable, and his poetic soul longed for
the twilight hour and the darkness that matched so well the black night
in his heart. In the gloaming, too, he could find sweet solace in tears.
It was the hour that his poor sister feared most for him. They had
become reconciled on the very next day after their quarrel.

'Are you still angry with me?' she had asked him, with that gentleness
of voice that betokens true affection.

'No,' he replied; 'I was entirely in the wrong; but, unless you wish to
see me act so unjustly again, I entreat you never to re-open that
subject.'

'Never,' she said, and she kept her word. Meanwhile she saw her brother
wasting away, his cheeks growing still thinner and a fierce light that
frightened her burning in his sunken eyes. It was for this reason, then,
that she generally chose the dangerous hour of twilight to come and sit
with him. One day Fresneau had gone to take Constant for a walk in the
Luxembourg; she herself had found some pretext for staying at home. She
took her darling brother's hand in hers, and this dumb caress made the
unhappy fellow feel inexpressibly sad. He returned her pressure without
a word, her benign and soothing influence controlling him until thoughts
of Desforges suddenly flashed across his brain. 'Leave me,' he said to
Emilie, and she obeyed him in the hope of easing his pain. As soon as
she was gone he buried his head in the pillows of the bed whilst
jealousy gripped his heart with relentless claws. Ah! the agony of it!

How many days had he spent in this fashion? Scarcely seven, but in his
present sufferings they appeared to him an eternity. Looking at the
almanac on the morning of the eighth day, he saw that May was drawing to
an end. Although the pilgrimage he contemplated inspired him with
horror, the bourgeois habits of regularity that had animated him
throughout his life induced him to turn his steps once more towards the
Rue des Dames. There was the landlady's bill to be paid and notice of
leaving to be given her. He chose the afternoon for his visit, so as to
be sure of not meeting Suzanne. 'Just as if she had not already
forgotten me,' he said to himself. What were his feelings on finding not
only her handkerchief and gloves, but next to them a note she had left
there on a second visit addressed to 'M. d'Albert!' He tore it open, but
his hands shook so terribly that it took him quite five minutes to read
the few sentences it contained, many of the words, too, being half
effaced by tears.

'I came back once more, my love! From the shrine of our passion, and in
the name of the memories it must contain for you as well as for me, I
entreat you to see me once again. Darling--will you not think of me here
without those horrible flashes of hatred I have seen in your eyes?
Remember what proofs of affection I have given you on the spot where you
are reading these lines. No! I cannot live if you doubt what is the one,
the only great truth of my life. I repeat once more that I am not angry
nor indignant--I am in despair; if you do not believe me it is because,
with my heart full of love and pain, I cannot stoop to artifice to make
you believe anything. Good-bye, my love! How often have I repeated these
words on the threshold of this room! And then I would add--_Au revoir!_
But I suppose it must really be good-bye now, both on my lips and in my
heart--can it be good-bye for ever?'

'Good-bye, my love!' repeated René, trying in vain to steel his heart.
The simple, loving words, the sight of the room, the thought that
Suzanne had come here without the hope of seeing him, and merely as a
pilgrim to the shrine of their past love--all contributed to work him up
to a pitch of frenzy, which he did his best to withstand. 'Her love!' he
cried, with a sudden outburst of fury, 'and she went to another--for
money! What a coward I am!' To escape the painful feelings he could not
banish he left the room hurriedly and rang Madame Raulet's bell. The
fair-spoken and accommodating landlady soon made her appearance, and led
the way into her own little parlour, furnished with the remaining
articles she could not get into the other. On his telling her that he
was giving up the apartments her face showed signs of real annoyance.

'The bill is not quite ready,' she said.

'I am in no hurry,' replied René, and, fearing a fresh attack of
despair if he returned to the room he had left, he added, 'I'll wait
here, if you don't mind.'

Although he was in no observant mood, he could not help noticing that in
the twenty minutes she kept him waiting Madame Raulet had found time to
change her dress. Instead of the striped cotton wrapper in which she had
received him, she now wore a becoming evening dress of black grenadine.
The corsage consisted of bands of stuff alternating with lace
insertions, through which might be seen the fair neck and shoulders of
the coquettish widow. There was a brighter look in her eyes and a more
vivid colour in her cheeks than usual, and, laying the bill on the
table, she said:

'Excuse me for having kept you waiting. I didn't feel very well. I have
such palpitations of the heart--feel!' Taking René's hand with a smile
that would not have deceived the simplest soul living, she placed it on
the spot where her heart should have been.

She had suspected the rupture between the pseudo-d'Albert and his
mistress by the two solitary visits of Madame Moraines. The fact of
René giving up the apartments proved her suspicions to be correct, and
an idea of taking advantage of the rupture had suddenly entered her
head, either because the poet with his manly beauty really pleased her
or because she had an eye to pecuniary considerations she could not
afford to despise. She was by no means old and thought herself very
attractive. But on looking at her lodger as she carried his hand to her
side she saw in his eyes a look of such cool contempt and disgust that
she immediately loosed her hold of his fingers. She took up the bill,
the writing in which showed that it had been prudently made out
beforehand, and tried to cover her confusion by entering into profuse
explanations of this or that item in a highly inflated account which the
poet did not even stoop to verify. He handed her the sum he owed her,
half in paper, half in gold. The humiliating defeat of her amorous
attempt had not deprived her wits of their sharpness, for she examined
the notes by holding each one up to the light, and looked closely at
each of the gold pieces as she counted them. She even sounded one of the
coins that seemed a little light in weight, and, after a moment's
hesitation, said: 'I must ask you to let me have another for this.'

The impressions produced by this shamelessness and sordid greed were so
well in keeping with the rest of René's feelings that during the
quarter of an hour it took him to carry the few things he had in the
three rooms to his cab he--to use the apt and expressive words of a
humourist--'was as merry as a mute going to his own funeral.' As the old
'growler' jolted along over the stones, carrying in its musty-smelling
interior the emblems of his happiness, his cruel merriment changed to a
fit of most abject melancholy. He recognised every inch of the way he
had so often trodden in the ecstasy of love, and which he would never
tread again. Dark and lowering clouds hung over the city. Since the
preceding evening there had been one of those unexpected returns of
winter to which Paris is frequently exposed about the middle of spring,
and which nip the young verdure with frost. As the cab crossed the
Seine, flowing darkly and drearily along, the unhappy man looked down
into the water and thought, 'How easy it would be to end it all!'

After this movement of despair he felt in his pocket for Suzanne's
letter, as if to convince himself of the reality of his grief. He also
took out her handkerchief and inhaled its perfume--for some time; then
he gazed at her gloves, and saw in them the shape of the fingers he had
loved so well. He felt that he had exhausted all his energy in resisting
temptation, and as soon as he was alone in his room after this fresh and
painful crisis he cried aloud, 'I cannot bear it any longer!'

Calmly, almost mechanically, he opened a drawer and took out of a
leather case a small revolver his sister had given him to carry in his
pocket when coming home late from the theatre. It was not loaded, and,
taking out a packet of cartridges, he weighed one in the palm of his
hand. Poor human machine, how little is required to bring you to a
standstill! He loaded the revolver and unbuttoned his shirt; then,
feeling for the place where his heart throbbed within him, he pressed
the barrel against it.

'No,' he said, in a firm tone, 'not before I have tried.'

These words were the outcome of an idea which had repeatedly entered his
mind, and which, repeatedly rejected as a crazy one, now took shape and
form with the precision our thoughts assume in moments of important
action. He put the revolver back in the drawer, and sitting down in his
arm-chair--Suzanne's arm-chair--he plunged into that abyss of tragic
thought in which visions stand out in bold relief, arguments follow on
each other with lightning rapidity, and desperate resolutions are
adopted. 'My love!' he repeated to himself, remembering the words of
Suzanne's letter. Yes, in spite of her lies, in spite of the play she
had acted--the innumerable scenes of which now passed through his
mind--in spite of her base connection with Desforges, she had truly and
passionately loved him. If that love were not sincere, then the story of
the past few months was perfectly unintelligible! What other motive
could have thrown her into his arms? It could not have been an
interested one. He was so poor, so humble, so utterly beneath her.
Neither was it the glory of enslaving a fashionable author, for she had
herself begged that their relations should be kept a secret. It could
not be vanity, for she had not stolen him from any rival, nor had she
held out long to give her conquest more value. No--monstrous as that
love might be, mingled as it was with corruption and deceit, there was
no doubt that she had loved him and that she loved him still. That soul
whose moral leprosy had struck him with horror was yet capable of some
kind of sincerity. There was still something within this woman better
than her life, better than her actions. René at length consented to
listen to the voice which pleaded for his mistress, and calmly and
dispassionately did he now weigh the crime of venality that had at first
so disgusted him.

His visits to the Komof mansion and his intimate relations with Suzanne
had opened his eyes to a new world and initiated him into the mysteries
of the highest forms of luxury and refinement. The false notions of high
life which the unsophisticated _bourgeois_ poet had at first entertained
were soon dispelled by a more correct idea of the frightful extravagance
which fashionable existence in Paris involves. Now, whilst his love was
struggling for life and attempting to justify Suzanne, or at least to
understand her, to discover in her something to save her from utter
contempt, he began to see, thanks to his truer knowledge of the world,
the tragedy in which this woman had played a leading part. Claude had
summed up the situation briefly in these words: 'Seven years ago the
Moraines were ruined.' Ruined! That word was now synonymous in René's
ears with all the privation and humiliation it generally brings. Suzanne
had been brought up in luxury to lead a life of luxury. It was as
necessary to her as the air she breathed. Her husband had no doubt been
the first to urge her to adopt her sinful expedient--so at least did the
poet continue to judge poor Paul. Desforges had presented himself, and
she had sinned, but not from love. When at length love did come to her
could she break her chains? Yes--she could, by proposing to him, René,
that each should give up all that bound them here, and that they two
should go and live together for ever!

'Give up all! . . . They two! . . . Live together!' He caught himself
uttering these words as in a dream. Was it too late? What if he went to
Suzanne now and offered to sacrifice all to their love, to wipe out all
the past except that love, and to bind up and identify with it their
whole being, their whole present, their whole future? What if he said:
'You swear that you love me, that this love is the one and only truth in
your heart. Prove it. You have no children, you are free. Take my life
and give me yours. Go with me, and I will forgive you and believe in
you. . . . I am going mad,' he said, suddenly bringing his mind to a
standstill as this idea presented itself so clearly that he could
actually see Suzanne listening to him. Mad? But why? The stories he had
read in his youth about the redemption of fallen women by love--an idea
of such sublime conception that it has attracted the greatest
writers--came back to him. Balzac's Esther, the most divine character of
an amorous courtesan ever painted, had often figured in his dreams of
long ago, and natures like his, in which literary impressions precede
those of life itself, never altogether lose the impress of such dreams.

He loved Suzanne, and Suzanne loved him. Why should he not attempt to
save her, in the name of that sublime passion, from the infamy that
covered her, and try to drag himself away from the dark abyss of death
towards which he felt drawn? Why should he not offer her this unique
opportunity of repairing the hideous wretchedness of her fate? But
she--what answer would she make? 'I shall know then whether she loves
me,' continued René. 'Yes--if she loves me, how eagerly will she seize
this means of escaping from the horrible luxury to which she is chained!
And if she says no?' A thrill of terror shot through him at the thought.
'It will be time enough to act then,' he concluded.

The whirlwind of passion let loose by the sudden conception of this plan
raged for nearly three hours. As his thoughts swayed hither and thither
the poet seemed unconscious of the fact that his mind was already made
up, and that the fluctuations only served to disguise from him the one
feeling that dominated all the rest--a furious longing, amounting almost
to a necessity, to have his mistress back. Even had this plan of
elopement been more irrational, more impracticable, and less likely to
succeed, he would have taken it up as the most reasonable, the easiest,
and most certain of success, simply because it was the only one that
reconciled the irrepressible ardour of his love with that dignity his
still unsullied honour would never compromise.

'To action,' he said at last. He sat down to his table and wrote Suzanne
a note in which he asked her to be at home the next day at two o'clock.
He took the letter to the post himself, and immediately experienced that
relief which invariably follows upon some definite resolve. He who for a
whole week, and ever since his first wild fit of grief, had felt himself
unable to put forth the least energy, and incapable even of opening the
manuscript of his 'Savonarola,' at once set about preparing everything,
as if there could be no doubt what Suzanne's reply would be. He counted
out the money he had in his drawer; there was a little over five
thousand francs. That would suffice for the initial expenses. And
afterwards? He made a calculation of the amount to which he was entitled
out of the patrimony that had never been divided between Emilie and
himself. The great thing was to get over the first two years, during
which he would finish his play and have it staged. Immediately after
that he would publish his novel, which the success of his piece would
help on, just as one wave sweeps on another, and then would come his
collection of poems. A boundless horizon of work and of triumph seemed
to lie before him. Of what efforts would he not be capable, sustained by
the divine elixir of happiness and by the desire to provide Suzanne with
that luxury she would have sacrificed for him? When his sister entered
his room she surprised him arranging his papers, putting his books in
order, and sorting some prints.

'What are you doing?' she asked.

'You can see that,' he replied, 'I'm getting ready to go.'

'To go!'

'Yes,' he rejoined; 'I think of going to Italy.'

'When?' asked Emilie in astonishment.

'Most probably the day after to-morrow.'

He meant what he said. He had calculated that Suzanne would require
about twenty-four hours for her preparations if she decided to go. If
she decided to go! The mere possibility of his attempt failing caused
him such pain that he did not care to dwell upon it. Since the scene at
the Opera, when he had left her pale and crushed in the semi-darkness of
the private box, he had imposed almost superhuman restraint upon himself
by stemming the torrent of passionate longing within him. The hope so
suddenly conceived was a kind of breach through which the torrent swept
with such unrestrained and violent fury that it overturned and carried
away all before it. In his madness René even went so far as to look at
some trunks in two or three shops in the Rue de la Paix. Since the
departure from Vouziers no one in the Vincy family had left Paris, even
for twenty-four hours. The only articles in the Rue Coëtlogon that
could hold anything were two old worm-eaten coffers and three leather
portmanteaus falling to pieces from age. These preparations, which lent
an appearance of reality to the poet's dreams, cheated the fever of
suspense until the hour of his appointment. The illusion in which he had
indulged had been so strong that he did not realise his actual position
until he stood in the little _salon_ in the Rue Murillo. Nothing had yet
been achieved.

'Madame will be here in a moment,' the servant had said, leaving him
alone in the room. He had not been there since the day when he read his
choicest verses to her whom he then regarded as a Madonna. Why did she
keep him waiting for full five minutes in this place that must awaken in
him so many recollections? Was it yet another ruse on her part?
Recollections did indeed rise up before him, but produced an effect
totally different from that anticipated by Suzanne. The elegance of
these surroundings, once so much admired, now inspired him with horror.
An atmosphere of infamy seemed to hang over all these objects, many of
which had no doubt been paid for by Desforges. The horror he felt
intensified his desire to drag the woman he loved away from her misery,
and when she appeared on the threshold it was not love that she read in
his eyes, but a fixed and determined look of resolve.

What resolve? Of the two she was undoubtedly the most agitated and least
under control. Her long white lace robe lent a sickly hue to her face,
already drawn and haggard by the trouble she had lately undergone. There
had been no necessity for her to pencil her eyes--a custom practised by
actresses of the drawing-room as well as by those of the stage--nor of
studying the movement with which, at sight of René, she brought her
hand to her heart and leant against the wall for support. At the first
glance she saw that she had a hard battle to fight, and she feared the
result. There fell upon the two lovers one of those spells of silence so
awful in their solemnity that in them we seem to hear the flight of
destiny!

The silence became unbearable to the unhappy woman, and she broke it by
saying in a low tone, 'René, how you have made me suffer!' Then,
rushing forward in her mad state of agitation, she took hold of his two
hands, and, throwing herself upon him, sought his lips for a kiss. But
he had the strength to shake her off.

'No,' he said, 'I won't.'

Wringing her hands, she cried in distress, 'Then you still believe in
those vile suspicions! You did not come, and you condemned me unheard!
What proofs had you? That you saw me leave a certain house! Not a single
doubt in my favour--not one out of twenty suppositions that might have
pleaded for me! What if I tell you that a friend of mine living in that
house was ill, and that I had been to call on her? What if I tell you
that the presence of the other person whose sight drove you mad was due
to the same cause? Shall I swear it by all I hold most sacred, by----'

'Don't swear,' exclaimed René in harsh tones, 'I shouldn't believe
you--I don't believe you.'

'He does not believe me even now--my God! What shall I do?' She paced up
and down the room, repeating, What shall I do? What shall I do?'

During the whole of that week she had been tormented by the thought that
he might be so thoroughly exasperated as not to believe her. If but a
single suspicion were left him she was lost. He would follow her again
or have her watched. He would know that she met Desforges every time she
visited her imaginary friend, and the whole thing would begin over
again. What, then, was the use of going on with her lies? She had had
enough of it all. Now that her heart was stirred by the sincerest of
passions she felt a desire to tell her lover the truth--the whole truth,
and, while telling him, to convince him of the depth of her love. He
must be made to hear the cry that came from her heart, and made to
believe it.

Almost beside herself, she commenced her story.

'It is true--I lied to you. You want to know all--you shall know all.'

She stopped for a moment and passed her hands wildly over her face. No,
no! She felt incapable of making this confession. He would despise her;
and inventing, as she went on, a kind of incoherent compromise between
her desire to unbosom herself and the fear of repelling René, she began
again.

'It is a horrible story. My father died. There were letters to get back
with which his enemies might have blackened his memory. This required
money--a good deal. I had none. My husband stood aloof. Then this man
came. I lost my head, and once he had me in his grasp he would not let
me go. Ah! can you not understand that I lied only to keep you?'

René had been watching her as these hurried words fell from her lips.
The story of rescuing her father's honour he knew to be a fresh lie, but
her last cry, uttered with almost savage ardour, had the ring of truth
in it What mattered to him all the rest? He would know by her answer
whether this love, the only sincerity to which she now laid claim, was
strong enough to triumph over all else.

'So much the better!' he replied. 'Yes, so much the better if you are
the slave of a wretched past that weighs you down! So much the better if
your subjection to this man causes you such horror! You say that you
have loved me--that you still love me, and that you lied only to keep
me? I now, offer you an opportunity of giving me such proofs of that
love as will put an end to all my doubts.

'I ask you to efface the past for ever and with one stroke. I too love
you, Suzanne--ah! how tenderly! Do not ask me what my feelings were on
learning what I have learnt, on seeing what I have seen. If it has not
killed me, it is because we do not die of despair. I am ready to forgive
all, to forget all, provided I know of a certainty that you really love
me. I am free, and, since you have no children, you too are free. I am
ready to give up everything for you, and I have come to ask you whether
you are ready to do the same. We will go wherever you like--to Italy, to
England, to any country where we shall be sure of finding no traces of
your past life. That past I will blot out; my belief in your love will
give me strength to do this. I shall say to myself: "She did not know
me; but as soon as I bared my heart there was nothing that could
withstand her love." To accept the present horrible state of things is
impossible. To see you coming to me stained by this man's caresses--or
even, if you should break with him, to doubt the reality of the rupture,
and to reassume the degrading _rôle_ of a spy I have already
played--no, Suzanne, do not ask it of me! We have reached that point
when we must be all or nothing to each other--either absolute strangers
or lovers who find in their love compensation for the loss of family,
country, and the whole world. It is for you to choose.'

He had spoken with the concentrated energy of a man who has sworn to
carry out what he has in his mind. Mad as the proposal seemed in the
eyes of a woman accustomed only to such forms of passion as are
compatible with the laws and usages of social life, Suzanne did not
hesitate for a moment. René had spoken in all sincerity, but in doing
so had given proofs of such deep-rooted affection that she had no doubt
as to her final triumph over the rebellious and mad schemes of the poet.

'How good you are to talk to me like that!' she replied with a thrill of
joy. 'How you love me! How you love me!' In uttering these words she
hung her head a little, as if the happiness brought her by these proofs
were almost too much to bear. 'God! how sweet this is!' she murmured.

Then, approaching him once more, she took his hand, almost timidly this
time, and held it tightly clasped in her own.

'Child that you are, what is it you offer me? If it were only a question
touching myself, how gladly I would say, "Take all my life," and deserve
little praise for doing so! But how can I accept the sacrifice of yours?
You are twenty-five years old and I am more than thirty. Close your
eyes, and look at us in ten years' time. I shall be an old woman, whilst
you will still be a young man. What then? And what about your work--that
art to which you are so attached that it makes me quite jealous? Why
should I hide it from you now? You must be in Paris to be able to write.
I should see you pining away beside me. I should see you, an unwilling
slave, bestowing affection upon me out of pity and from a sense of duty.
No--I could not bear it! My love, lay aside this mad plan and say that
you forgive me without it--say it, René, I implore you!'

Whilst speaking she had nestled closer to the poet, and now hung her
arms about his neck, seeking his lips with hers. An intense desire to
fold her in his arms came over him, but it was drowned in the disgust he
felt at her lasciviousness.

Seizing her by the wrist, he flung her from him, shouting in his fury,
'Then you refuse to come--tell me once more you refuse to come!'

'René, I entreat you,' she went on, with tears in her voice and in her
eyes, 'do not cast me off! Since we love each other, let us be happy.
Take me as I am, with all the wretchedness of my life. It is true--I
love luxury, I love gaiety, I love the Paris you hate. I shall never
have the courage to break my bonds and give all this up. Take me for
what I am, now that you know all, now that you feel I am speaking the
truth when I swear I love you as I have never loved before. Keep me! I
will be your slave, your thing! When you call me, I will come. When you
drive me away, I will go. Do not look at me with such eyes, I implore
you--let your heart be softened! When you came to me, did I ask you
whether you had another mistress? No; I had but one wish--to make you
happy. Can you reproach me for having kept all the misery of my life
from you? Look at me--I kneel before you and beseech you----'

She had, indeed, thrown herself at his feet. She took no heed of
prudence now, nor of the possibility of a servant entering the room.
Clinging to his garments, she dragged herself about on her knees. Never
had she looked so beautiful as when, with eyes aglow and her face
burning with all the fire of passion, she at length laid aside the mask
and proclaimed herself the sublime courtesan she had always been.
René's senses were in a state of wild commotion, but a cruel
reminiscence flashed across his brain, and he flung his words at her
with an insulting sneer--

'And what about Desforges?'

'Don't speak of him,' she moaned, 'don't think of him! If I could get
rid of him or forbid him the house, do you think I should hesitate?
Don't you understand what a hold he has upon me? My God! My God! It is
not right to torture a woman like this! No,' she added, in a dull,
despairing tone, still on her knees, but now immovable and with hanging
head, 'no, I can bear it no longer!'

'Then accept my offer,' said René; 'there is still time. Let us fly
together.'

'No,' she replied, in accents of still greater despair, 'no; I can't do
that either. It would be so easy to make a promise and break it. But I
have already lied too much.' She rose. The crisis through which she had
passed was beginning to react upon her nerves, and she repeated wearily,
'I can't do that either--I can't.'

'What, then, do you want?' he cried in tones of fury. 'Why were you on
your knees just now? A toy--a plaything--is that what you want me to be?
A young man whose caresses would compensate you for those of the
_other!_' His anger carried him away, and the brutal words almost led to
deeds. He strode towards her with uplifted fist and with an expression
so terrible that she thought he was going to kill her. She drew back,
pale with fear, and with outstretched hands.

'Forgive me, forgive me!' she cried in her distraction. 'Don't hurt me!'

She had taken shelter behind a table upon which, amongst other trifles,
there stood the photograph of the Baron in a plush frame. In struggling
with the horrible temptation to strike this defenceless woman René had
turned his eyes from her. As they fell upon the portrait he broke out
into a hideous laugh. Taking up the frame, he seized Suzanne by the hair
and rubbed the portrait violently over her lips and face, at the risk of
cutting her, continuing his frantic laughter all the time.

'Here,' he cried, 'here is your lover! Look at him--your lover!'

He threw the frame upon the floor, and crushed it with his heel. But no
sooner had he committed this mad action than he was ashamed of it. For
the last time he looked at Suzanne as, with dishevelled hair and staring
eyes, she stood in a corner overcome with fear--then without a word he
left the room, and she had not the strength to utter a syllable to
retain him.



CHAPTER XX

THE ABBÉ TACONET


Two days after this terrible scene Claude Larcher was standing on the
balcony of Colette's rooms, which overlooked the Tuileries gardens. It
was about two in the afternoon, and there had been a return of glorious
spring weather, bringing a bright blue sky and warm May breezes. Claude
had spent several days with Colette. The two lovers had been seized with
one of those revivals of passion which are all the more ardent and
vehement on account of the memories of past quarrels and the certainty
of others to come. Larcher was reflecting upon this curious law of love
as he watched the smoke of his cigar curling up in thin blue wreaths in
the sunshine. Then he looked down upon the line of carriages in the
street and the crowd of promenaders under the scanty foliage of the
gardens.

He was astonished at the state of perfect felicity into which these few
days of indulgence had plunged him. His painful jealousy, his legitimate
anger, his feelings of degradation--all had passed away since Colette
had acted in accordance with his wishes and closed her door to Salvaney.
This would not last, he knew full well, but the presence of this woman
was to him such complete happiness that it allayed his fears for the
future as it effaced his rancour for the past. He smoked his cigar
slowly and peacefully, turning round every now and then to look at
Colette through the open window as she sat in a cane rocking-chair,
dressed in a Chinese gown of pink satin embroidered with gold--a
duplicate of the one in her dressing-room at the theatre. Swinging
herself to and fro, she slipped her dainty feet in and out of her
embroidered morocco leather slippers, displaying, as she did so, a pair
of pink silk stockings to match her dress.

The room in which she sat was filled with flowers. The walls were
covered with souvenirs of an artist's life--water-colour drawings of
scenes in the green-room, tambourines won in cotillons, photographs, and
wreaths. A small white Angora kitten, with one eye blue and the other
black, was lying on its back playing with a ball whilst Colette
continued rocking herself--now smiling at Claude between the puffs at
her Russian cigarette, now reading a newspaper she held in her hand, and
all the time humming a charming ballad of Richepin's recently set to
music by a foreign composer named Cabaner.


'One month flies by, another comes,
And time runs like a hare----'


'_Mon Dieu!_' murmured the writer as he listened to the couplets of the
only poet of our time who has been able to compete successfully with the
divine _Chansons populaires_--'these lines are very fine, the sky is
very blue, my mistress is very pretty. To the deuce with analysis!'

The actress interrupted this placid soliloquy of her contented lover
with a cry of alarm. She had risen from her chair and was holding the
paper with a trembling hand. After having, according to her wont, looked
over the contents of the third page, where the theatrical news are
chronicled, she had turned to the second and then to the first. It was
there she had just read what had so upset her, for she stammered, as she
handed Claude the paper--

'It is horrible!'

Claude, terrified by her sudden and intense agitation, took the paper
and read the following lines under the heading, 'Echos de Paris:'

'As we go to press we hear of an event that will cause much grief and
consternation in the literary world. M. René Vincy, the successful
author of the "Sigisbée," has made an attempt to commit suicide in his
rooms in the Rue Coëtlogon by discharging a revolver in the region of
his heart. In order to remove the fears of M. Vincy's numerous admirers,
we hasten to add that the attempt will have no fatal results. Our
sympathetic _confrère_ is indeed grievously wounded, but the ball has
been extracted, and the latest news are most reassuring. Much
speculation is indulged in concerning the motive of this desperate act.'

'Colette!' cried Claude, 'it is you who killed him!'

'No, no!' moaned the actress wildly; 'it can't be. He won't die. You
see, the paper says he is better. Don't say that! I should never forgive
myself. How was I to know? I was so mad with you--you had behaved so
cruelly that I would have done anything to be revenged. But you must go
to him--run! Here is your hat, your gloves, your stick. Poor little
René! I will send him some flowers; he was so fond of them. And do you
think it is on account of that woman?'

As she spoke--her incoherent sentences betraying both her customary
puerility and the real good feeling she possessed in spite of all--she
had dressed Larcher and pushed him towards the door.

'And where shall I find you?' he asked.

'Fetch me here at six o'clock to go and dine in the Bois. _Mon Dieu!_'
she added, 'if I hadn't these two appointments with the milliner and the
dressmaker, I would go with you. But I must see them.'

'Do you still want to go and dine in the Bois?' said Claude.

'Don't be unkind,' she replied, giving him a kiss; 'it is such fine
weather, and I do so want to dine out in the open.' With these words
closed a scene which described the actress to a nicety, with her sudden
transitions from sincerest grief to a most passionate love of pleasure.

Larcher kissed her in return, though despising himself in a vague kind
of way for being so indulgent to her least whims even now after hearing
of a catastrophe that touched him so closely. Rushing out of the room,
he flew down the stairs four at a time, jumped into a cab, and at the
end of fifteen minutes found himself before the gate in the Rue
Coëtlogon through which he had passed but a few months since.

All that had struck him so forcibly then suddenly came back to him
now--the frowning sky, the pale moon sailing amid the swift-scudding
clouds, and the strange presentiment that had chilled his heart. Now the
bright May sunshine filled the heavens with light, and the narrow strip
of garden in front of the house was decked with green. The air of spring
that hung over the peaceful abode was an excellent presentment of what
René's life had long been, and what it would have remained if he had
never met Suzanne. Who had been the indirect author of that meeting? In
vain did Claude try to shake off his remorse by saying, 'Could I foresee
this catastrophe?' He had foreseen it. Nothing but evil could result
from the poet's sudden transplantation to a world of luxury in which
both his vanity and sensuality had been drawn to the surface. The worst
had come to pass--by a terrible run of ill luck, it is true. But who had
provoked that ill luck? The answer to that question was a cruel one for
a true friend, and it was with a heavy heart that Claude walked up to
the house in which formerly there had dwelt naught but simplicity,
honest labour, and a pure and noble love.

How many deadly stings had entered it since then, and what an infinity
of grief! This came home to him once more on seeing the maid's agitated
face and on hearing the sobs which burst from her as she opened the door
and recognised the visitor. Wiping her eyes with the corner of her blue
apron, she let loose a flow of words thickly sprinkled with her own
_patois._

'_Ah! l'la faut-i! Mon bon monsieur!_ To try and kill himself like
that--a child I've known as tender and as gentle as a girl! _Jésus,
Marie, Joseph!_ Come in, Monsieur Claude, you will find Madame Fresneau
and Mademoiselle Rosalie in the _salle-à-manger._ Monsieur l'Abbé
Taconet is with _him!_

Emilie and Rosalie were together in the room in which Claude had so
often been welcomed by a charming family picture. The doctor had
evidently just gone, for there was a strong smell of carbolic acid, like
that left by rebandaging. A bottle bearing a red label was standing on
the table with a saucer beside it, and close by lay a small heap of
square pieces of cotton. A packet of linen bandages, some strips of
plaster, a pot of ointment labelled red like the bottle and covered with
tinfoil, some nursery pins, and a stamped prescription gave the room the
appearance of a hospital ward. Emilie's pallor revealed more than words
what she had gone through during the past forty-eight hours. The sight
of Claude produced the same effect upon her as upon Françoise. His mere
presence recalled to her the old days when she had been so proud of her
René.

She burst into tears, and, giving him her hand, said: 'You were right!'

Rosalie had darted a look at the visitor charging him as plainly as
possible with René's attempted suicide. Her eyes expressed such deep
hatred and their meaning was so fully in keeping with Claude's secret
remorse that he turned his own eyes away, and asked, after a moment's
silence, 'Can I see him?'

'Not to-day,' replied Emilie, 'he is so weak. The doctor fears the least
excitement.' She added, 'My uncle will tell you how he is now.'

'When did this happen? I only heard of it from the papers.'

'Has it got into the papers?' said Emilie. 'I tried so hard that it
should not.'

'A few lines of no importance,' replied Claude, guessing the truth from
Rosalie's sudden change of colour. Old Offarel had a young man under him
in the War Office who was connected with the Press, and whom Larcher
knew. The _sous-chef_ had no doubt been gossiping, and his daughter had
already got to hear of it. Larcher made an attempt to gain fresh favour
in Rosalie's eyes by allaying Madame Fresneau's suspicions. 'The
reporters ferret out everything,' he said; 'no one who is the least bit
known can escape them. But,' he continued, 'what are the details?'

'He came home the day before yesterday about four o'clock, and I saw at
once by his face that there was something wrong with him. I had,
however, been so accustomed to see him look sad of late that it did not
strike me very much. He had told me that he was going to Italy on a long
tour. I said to him: "Do you still intend going to-morrow?" "No," he
replied, and, taking me in his arms, held me there for some time, whilst
he sobbed like a child. I asked him what was the matter. "Nothing," he
said; "where is Constant?" His question surprised me. He knew that the
boy never comes home from school before six o'clock. "And Fresneau?" he
added. Then he drew a deep sigh and went into his room. I stood there
for five minutes debating with myself--I thought that perhaps I ought
not to leave him alone. At last I began to get frightened--he is so
easily led away in his fits of despair. And then I heard the report--I
shall hear it all my life!'

She stopped, too agitated to go on, and, after another storm of tears
had spent itself, Claude asked, 'What does the doctor say?'

'That he is out of danger, unless some unforeseen complication sets in,'
replied Emilie; 'he has explained to us that the trigger of the
revolver--it was I who gave it him!--was somewhat hard to pull. The
pressure that he brought to bear upon it must have altered the direction
of the ball; it passed through the lung without touching the heart, and
came out on the other side. At twenty-five! _Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!_ What a
terrible thing! No--he does not love us; he has never loved us!'

Whilst she was thus lamenting and laying bare a heart suffering from
those pangs of unrequited affection that mothers know so well the Abbé
Taconet appeared on the threshold of the sick-room. He shook hands with
Claude, whom he had long since forgiven for having run away from the
Ecole Saint-André, and replied to the inquiring looks of his niece and
Rosalie:

'He is going to sleep, and I must get back to my school.'

'Will you allow me to walk with you?' said Claude.

'I was going to ask you to do so,' replied the priest.

For some minutes the two men walked side by side in silence. The Abbé
Taconet had always inspired Larcher with respect. His was one of those
spotless natures which form such a contrast to the ordinary low standard
of morality that their mere existence is a standing reproach to a man of
the period like the writer, given up to vice though craving for the
ideal. Even now, as the Abbé walked beside him with his somewhat heavy
tread, Claude looked at him and thought of the moral gulf that separated
them. The director of the Ecole Saint-André was a tall, strong-looking
man of about fifty. At first sight there was nothing in his robust
corpulence to betray the asceticism of his life. His rounded cheeks and
ruddy complexion might even have lent him an air of joviality had not
the serious lines of his mouth and the usually serene look in his eyes
corrected this impression. The sort of imagination found in true
artists, and which, elaborated by heredity, had produced the morbid
melancholy of René's mother, the poet's own talent, his delight in all
things brilliant, and even Emilie's inordinate affection for her
brother--that imagination which will not allow the mind to be satisfied
with the present and the positive, but which paints all objects in too
bright or too dark a colour--this dangerous yet all-powerful faculty had
also its reflex in the eyes of the priest. But Catholic discipline had
corrected its excesses as deep faith had sanctified its use. The
serenity of his piercing glance was that of a man who has lain down at
night and risen each morning for years together with but one idea, and
that--of self-sacrifice.

Claude was well acquainted with the precise terms in which this idea was
couched, and to which the Abbé Taconet always reverted in his
conversation--the salvation of France by the aid of Christianity. Such
was, according to this robust worker in moral spheres, the task laid
down in our day for all Frenchmen who were willing to undertake it.
Claude was also aware of the hopes this truly eminent priest had
cherished concerning his nephew. How often had he heard him say 'France
has need of Christian talent'! He therefore looked at him with
particular curiosity, discovering in his usually calm face a trace of
anxiety--he would almost have called it an expression of doubt. They
were walking along the Rue d'Assas, and were just about to cross the Rue
de Rennes, when the Abbé stopped and turned to his companion.

'My niece tells me you know the woman who has driven my nephew to this
desperate act. God has not permitted the poor boy to disappear in this
fashion. The body will be healed, but the soul must not be allowed to
relapse. What is she?'

'What all women are,' replied the writer, unable to resist the pleasure
of displaying before the priest his pretended knowledge of the human
heart.

'If you had ever sat in the confessional you would not say all women,'
remarked the Abbé. 'You do not know what a Christian woman is, and of
what sacrifices she is capable.'

'What almost all women are,' repeated Claude, with a touch of irony, and
began to relate what he knew of René's story, drawing a fairly exact
portrait of Suzanne with the aid of many psychological expressions, and
speaking of the multiplicity of her person--of a first and a second
condition of her 'I.' 'There is in her,' he said, 'a woman who is fond
of luxury, and she therefore keeps a lover who can give it her; then
there is a woman who is fond of love, and so she takes a young lover; a
woman who is fond of respect, and so she lives with a husband whom she
treats with consideration. And I will wager that she loves all
three--the paying lover, the loving lover, and the protecting
husband--but in a different way. Certain natures are so constructed,
like the Chinese boxes which contain six or seven others. She is a very
complicated animal!'

'Complicated?' said the Abbé, throwing back his head. 'I know you use
these words to avoid uttering more simple ones. She is merely an unhappy
woman who allows herself to be governed by her senses. All this is
filth.'

There was a look of profound disgust on his noble face as he uttered
these words of brutal simplicity. It was plain that the thought of
matters concerning the flesh provoked in him that peculiar repugnance
found in priests who have had to struggle hard against a natural
inclination for love. His disgust soon made way for a deep melancholy,
and he continued his remarks.

'It is not this woman who causes me alarm in René's case. According to
what you tell me, she would have left him when once her whim was
gratified. In his present state she will not give him a thought. It is
the moral condition of the poor lad, as shown by this affair, which
troubles me. Here is a young man of twenty-five, brought up as he has
been, knowing how indispensable he is to the best of sisters, possessing
that divine and incomparable gift called talent--a gift which, if
properly directed, can produce such great things--and possessing it,
too, at a tragic moment in the history of our country; here is one, I
say, who knows that to-morrow his country may be lost for ever in
another hurricane, that its safety is entrusted to every one of us--to
you and me and each of these passers-by--and yet all this does not
outweight the grief of being deceived by a wretched woman! But,' he
continued, as if his remarks applied to Claude as much as to the wounded
man he had just quitted, 'what is it you hope to find in that troubled
sea of sensuality into which you plunge on a pretext of love, except sin
with its endless misery? You speak of complication. Human life is very
simple. It is all comprised in God's Ten Commandments. Find me a case, a
single one, which is not provided for there. Has a blindness fallen upon
the men of this generation that a lad, whom I knew to be pure, has sunk
so low in so short a time, and only through breathing the vapours of the
age? Ah, sir,' he added in the accents of a father deceived in his son,
'I was so proud of him! I expected so much of him!'

'You talk as if he were dead,' said Claude, feeling both moved and
irritated by the Abbé's words. On the one hand, he pitied him for his
evident distress; but, on the other hand, he could not bear to hear the
priest enunciate such ideas, although they were also his own in his fits
of remorse. Like many modern sceptics, he was incessantly sighing for a
simpler faith, and yet his taste for intellectual or sentimental
complexities was incessantly leading him to look upon any and every
faith he examined as a mutilation. There suddenly came over him an
irresistible desire to contradict the Abbé Taconet and to defend the
very youth whose fate he had himself so bewailed on reaching the Rue
Coëtlogon that afternoon.

'Do you think,' he said, 'that René will not be all the stronger for
this trial--more able to exercise and to develop that talent in which
you at least believe, Monsieur l'Abbé? If we writers could evolve our
ideas as easily as a mathematician solves his problems on the
black-board, and enunciate them, coolly and calmly, in well-chosen and
precise terms--why, every one would set up as an author instead of
turning engineer or lawyer. They would only require patience, method,
and leisure. But writing is a different thing altogether.' He was
getting more excited as he went on. 'To begin with, one must live, and,
to know life, in every one of its peculiar phases, become acquainted
with every possible sensation. We must experiment upon ourselves. What
Claude Bernard used to do with his dogs, what Pasteur does with his
rabbits, we must do with our heart, inoculating it with every form of
virus that attacks humanity. We must have felt, if only for an hour,
each of the thousand emotions of which our fellow-man is capable, and
all in order that some obscure reader in ten, a hundred, or two hundred
years' time may stop at some phrase in one of our books and, recognising
the disease from which he is suffering, say, 'This is true.' It is
indeed a terrible game, and we run a terrible risk in playing it.
Greater even than that incurred by doctors, for they run no risk of
cutting themselves with the dissecting knife nor of being struck down
when visiting a cholera hospital. It was nearly all over with poor
René, but when he next writes of love, jealousy, or woman's treachery,
his words will be tinged with blood--the red blood that has coursed
through his veins--and not with ink borrowed from another's pen. And it
will make a fine page, too, one that will swell the literary treasures
of that France you accuse us of forgetting. We serve our country in our
own fashion. That fashion may not be yours, but it has its greatness. Do
you know what a martyrdom of suffering has to be endured before an
_Adolphe_ or a _Manon_ can be dragged from the soul?'

'_Beati pauperes spirtu_,' replied the priest. 'I remember having heard
something of the kind in the Ecole Normale thirty years ago as I walked
in the courtyard with some of my comrades who have since distinguished
themselves. They possessed fewer metaphors, but greater powers of
abstraction than you have, and they called it the antinomy of art and
morality. Words are but words, and facts remain facts. Since you talk of
science, what would you think of a physician who, under pretence of
studying an infectious disease, gave it to himself and so to all the
town? Do you ever think of the terrible responsibility that rests upon
those great writers whom you envy for having been able to give the world
their own wretched experiences? I have not read the two novels you
mention, but I well remember Goethe's "Werther" and de Musset's "Rolla."
Don't you think that the pistol-shot René fired at himself was somewhat
influenced by these two apologies of suicide? Do you know that it is
awful to think that both Goethe and de Musset are dead, but that their
work can still place a weapon in the hand of a heart-broken lad? The
sufferings of the soul should be laid bare only to be relieved, and a
cold, pitiless interest in human woe inspires me with horror whenever I
meet with it. Believe me,' he added, pointing to the crucifix that
adorned the gateway of the Couvent des Carmes, 'no one can say more than
He has said about sufferings and passions, and you will find a remedy
nowhere else.'

Irritated by the priest's air of conviction, Claude replied, 'You
brought René up in His name, and you yourself admit that your hopes
have been deceived.'

'The ways of God are inscrutable,' replied the Abbé, with a look of
mute reproach that made Claude blush. In attacking René's uncle in a
painful spot, simply because the argument was going against him, he had
yielded to an evil impulse of which he was now ashamed. The two men
passed the corner of the Rue de Vaugirard and the Rue Cassette in
silence, and reached the door of the Ecole Saint-André just as a class
of boys was entering. There were about forty of them--lads of about
fifteen or sixteen years old, all looking very well and happy. As they
passed the _Directeur_ they saluted him so deferentially and with such
evident heartiness that this act alone would have shown what rare
influence their excellent instructor possessed. Claude, however, also
knew from experience how conscientiously the Abbé discharged his duty;
he knew that each of these boys was followed daily, almost hourly, by
the serene but vigilant eyes of the worthy priest.

A sudden rush of feeling prompted him to seize the latter by the hand
and to exclaim, 'You are an upright man, Monsieur l'Abbé, and that is
the best and finest talent one can have!'

'He will save René,' he said, as he saw the good Christian's robe
disappear across the threshold that he had himself so often crossed in
less happy days. His thoughts became singularly serious and sad, and as
his steps wandered almost mechanically towards his rooms in the Rue de
Varenne, where he had not put in an appearance for several days, he
allowed his mind to dwell upon the ideas awakened by the conversation
and the life of the priest. The feeling of physical beatitude
experienced two hours ago on Colette's balcony had fled. All the
wretchedness of the undignified life he had been leading for the past
two years came home to him, and looked still more wretched when compared
with the hidden glory of the perfect life of duty he had been privileged
to behold.

His disgust grew stronger when he found himself in his own rooms,
recalling, as they did, the memories of so many hours of shame and pain.
A score of visions rose up before him illustrating the drama in which he
had played a part--René reading the manuscript of the 'Sigisbée,' the
first performance at the Comédie Française, the _soirée_ at Madame
Komof's, Suzanne's appearance in her red gown, and Colette in his rooms
on the day after the _soirée_; then René telling him of his visit to
Madame Moraines, his own departure for Venice, his return, the scenes to
which it had led, and the two parallel passions that had sprung up in
his heart and René's, ending with the attempted suicide of the one and
the abasement of the other. 'The Abbé is right,' he thought; 'all this
is filth.' He went on with his soliloquy. 'Yes, the Abbé will save
René; he will compel him to go for a tour of six months or a year as
soon as he is better, and he will come back rid of this horrible
nightmare. He is young--a heart of twenty-five is such a vigorous and
hardy plant. Who knows? He may perhaps be moved by Rosalie's love and
marry her. Anyhow, he will triumph. He has suffered, but he has not
debased himself. But I?'

In a few moments he had drawn up a statement of his actual
position--well over thirty-five years of age, not a single reason for
remaining alive, disorder within and disorder without, in his health and
in his thoughts, in his money matters and in his love affairs, an
absolute conviction of the emptiness of literature and the degrading
power of passion, coupled with sheer inability to turn aside from the
profession of letters or to give up his libertine life.

'Is it really too late?' he asked himself, as he paced up and down his
room. He could see, like a port in the distance, the country home of his
old aunt, his father's sister, to whom he wrote two or three times a
year, and nearly always to ask for money. He saw before him the little
room that awaited his coming, its window looking out upon a meadow. The
meadow, through which ran a stream bordered with willows, was closed in
by some rising ground. Why not take refuge there and try to commence
over again? Why not make one more attempt to escape the misery of an
existence in which there was not a single illusion left? Why not go at
once, without again beholding the woman who had exercised a more baneful
influence upon him than Suzanne had had upon René?

The agitation brought on by this sudden prospect of a still possible
salvation drove him from his rooms, but not before he had told Ferdinand
to pack his trunk. He went out and wandered aimlessly as far as the
entrance to the Champs-Elysées. On this bright May evening the roadway
was crowded with an interminable line of carriages. The contrast between
the moving panorama of Paris at its gayest, once his delight, and the
quiet scene he had evoked for his complete reform, charmed his artistic
soul. He sat down upon a chair and watched the string of vehicles,
recognising a face here and there, and recalling the rumours, true or
false, he had heard about each. Suddenly a carriage came in view that
attracted his particular attention--no, he was not mistaken! It was an
elegant victoria, in which sat Madame Moraines with Desforges by her
side, and Paul Moraines facing them. Suzanne was smiling at the Baron,
who was evidently taking his mistress and her husband to the
Bois--probably to dine there. She did not see René's friend, who gazed
after her shapely blonde head, half turned to her protector, until it
was lost to view.

He laughed.

'What a comedy life is, and how silly we are to turn it into a drama!'

He took out his watch and rose hurriedly.

'Half-past six--I shall be late for Colette.' And he hailed a passing
cab in order to get to the Rue de Rivoli--five minutes sooner!



THE END.



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