Part 4 out of 9
sehr_...." ("And even though the world were full of devils, all seeking to
devour us, we should not be afraid....").
And over the sea of scalding shadows that dashed over him, there came a
sudden calm, glimpses of light, a gentle murmuring of violins and viols,
the clear triumphant notes of trumpets and horns, while, almost motionless,
like a great wall, there rose from the sick man's soul an indomitable song,
like a choral of J.S. Bach.
* * * * *
While he was fighting against the phantoms of fever and the choking in
his lungs, he was dimly aware that some one had opened the door, and that
a woman entered with a candle in her hand. He thought it was another
hallucination. He tried to speak, but could not, and fell back on his
pillow. When, every now and then, he was brought for a moment back to
consciousness, he felt that his pillow had been raised, that his feet had
been wrapped up, that there was something burning his back, or he would see
the woman, whose face was not altogether unfamiliar, sitting at the foot of
his bed. Then he saw another face, that of a doctor using a stethoscope.
Christophe could not hear what they were saying, but he gathered that they
were talking of sending him to the hospital. He tried to protest, to cry
out that he would not go, that he would die where he was, alone: but he
could only frame incomprehensible sounds. But the woman understood him: for
she took his part, and reassured him. He tried hard to find out who she
was. As soon as he could, with frightful effort, frame a sentence, he asked
her. She replied that she lived in the next attic and had heard him moaning
through the wall, and had taken the liberty of coming in, thinking that
he wanted help. She begged him respectfully not to wear himself out with
talking. He obeyed her. He was worn out with the effort he had made: he lay
still and said nothing: but his brain went on working, painfully gathering
together its scattered memories. Where had he seen her?... At last he
remembered: yes, he had met her on the attic landing: she was a servant,
and her name was Sidonie.
He watched her with half-closed eyes, so that she could not see him. She
was little, and had a grave face, a wide forehead, hair drawn back, so that
her temples were exposed; her cheeks were pale and high-boned; she had a
short nose, pale blue eyes, with a soft, steady look in them, thick lips
tightly pressed together, an anemic complexion, a humble, deliberate, and
rather stiff manner. She looked after Christophe with busy silent devotion,
without a spark of familiarity, and without ever breaking down the reserve
of a servant who never forgets class differences.
However, little by little, when he was better and could talk to her,
Christophe's affectionate cordiality made Sidonie talk to him a little
more freely: but she was always on her guard: there were obviously certain
things which she would not tell. She was a mixture of humility and pride.
Christophe learned that she came from Brittany, where she had left her
father, of whom she spoke very discreetly: but Christophe gathered that he
did nothing but drink, have a good time, and live on his daughter: she put
up with it, without saying anything, from pride: and she never failed to
send him part of her month's wages: but she was not taken in. She had also
a younger sister who was preparing for a teacher's examination, and she was
very proud of her. She was paying almost all the expenses of her education.
She worked frightfully hard, with grim determination.
"Have you a good situation?" asked Christophe.
"Yes. But I am thinking of leaving."
"Why? Aren't they good to you?"
"Oh! no. They're very good to me."
"Don't they pay you enough?"
He did not quite understand: he tried to understand, and encouraged her to
talk. She had nothing to tell him but the monotony of her life, and the
difficulty of earning a living: she did not lay any stress on it: she was
not afraid of work: it was a necessity to her, almost a pleasure. She never
spoke of the thing that tried her most: boredom. He guessed it. Little by
little, with the intuition of perfect sympathy, he saw that her suffering
was increasing, and it was made more acute for him by the memory of the
trials supported by his own mother in a similar existence. He saw, as
though he had lived it, the drab, unhealthy, unnatural existence--the
ordinary existence imposed on servants by the middle-classes:--employers
who were not so much unkind as indifferent sometimes leaving her for days
together without speaking a word outside her work. The hours and hours
spent in the stuffy kitchen, the one small window, blocked up by a meat
safe, looking out on to a white wall. And her only pleasure was when she
was told carelessly that her sauce was good or the meat well cooked. A
cramped airless life with no prospect, with no ray of desire or hope,
without interest of any kind.--The worst time of all for her was when her
employers went away to the country. They economized by not taking her with
them: they paid her wages for the month, but not enough to take her home:
they gave her permission to go at her own expense. She would not, she could
not do that. And so she was left alone in the deserted house. She had no
desire to go out, and did not even talk to other servants, whose coarseness
and immorality she despised. She never went out in search of amusement: she
was naturally serious, economical, and afraid of misadventure. She sat in
her kitchen, or in her room, from whence across the chimneys she could see
the top of a tree in the garden of a hospital. She did not read, but tried
to work listlessly: she would sit there dreaming, bored, bored to tears:
she had a singular and infinite capacity for weeping: it was her only
pleasure. But when her boredom weighed too heavily on her she could not
even weep: she was frozen, sick at heart, and dead. Then she would pull
herself together: or life would return of its own accord. She would think
of her sister, listen to a barrel-organ in the distance, and dream, and
slowly count the days until she had gained such and such a sum of money:
she would be out in her reckoning, and begin to count all over again: she
would fall asleep. So the days passed....
The fits of depression alternated with outbursts of childish chatter and
laughter. She would make fun of herself and other people. She watched and
judged her employers, and their anxieties fed by their want of occupation,
and her mistress's moods and melancholy, and the so-called interests of
these so-called people of culture, how they patronized a picture, or a
piece of music, or a book of verse. With her rude common sense, as far
removed from the snobbishness of the very Parisian servants as from the
crass stupidity of the very provincial girls, who only admire what they do
not understand, she had a respectful contempt for their dabbling in music,
their pointless chatter, and all those perfectly useless and tiresome
intellectual smatterings which play so large a part in such hypocritical
existences. She could not help silently comparing the real life, with which
she grappled, with the imaginary pains and pleasures of that cushioned
life, in which everything seems to be the product of boredom. She was
not in revolt against it. Things were so: things were so. She accepted
everything, knaves and fools alike. She said:
"It takes all sorts to make a world."
Christophe imagined that she was borne up by her religion: but one day she
said, speaking of others who were richer and more happy:
"But in the end we shall all be equal."
"When?" asked Christophe. "After the social revolution?"
"The revolution?" said she. "Oh, there'll be much water flowing under
bridges before that. I don't believe that stuff. Things will always be the
"When shall we all be equal, then?"
"When we're dead, of course! That's the end of everybody."
He was surprised by her calm materialism. He dared not say to her:
"Isn't it a frightful thing, in that case, if there is only one life, that
it should be the like of yours, while there are so many others who are
But she seemed to have guessed his thought: she went on phlegmatically,
resignedly, and a little ironically:
"One has to put up with it. Everybody cannot draw a prize. I've drawn a
blank: so much the worse!"
She never even thought of looking for a more profitable place outside
France. (She had once been offered a situation in America.) The idea of
leaving the country never entered her head. She said:
"Stones are hard everywhere."
There was in her a profound, skeptical, and mocking fatalism. She was
of the stock that has little or no faith, few considered reasons for
living, and yet a tremendous vitality--the stock of the French peasantry,
industrious and apathetic, riotous and submissive, who have no great love
of life, but cling to it, and have no need of artificial stimulants to keep
up their courage.
Christophe, who had not yet come across them, was astonished to find in the
girl an absence of all faith: he marveled at her tenacious hold on life,
without pleasure or purpose, and most of all he admired her sturdy moral
sense that had no need of prop or support. Till then he had only seen
the French people through naturalistic novels, and the theories of the
mannikins of contemporary literature, who, reacting from the art of the
century of pastoral scenes and the Revolution, loved to present natural man
as a vicious brute, in order to sanctify their own vices.... He was amazed
when he discovered Sidonie's uncompromising honesty. It was not a matter of
morality but of instinct and pride. She had her aristocratic pride. For it
is foolish to imagine that everybody belonging to the people is "popular."
The people have their aristocrats just as the upper classes have their
vulgarians. The aristocrats are those creatures whose instincts, and
perhaps whose blood, are purer than those of the others: those who know and
are conscious of what they are, and must be true to themselves. They are in
the minority: but, even when they are forced to live apart, the others know
that they are the salt of the earth: and the fact of their existence is a
check upon the others, who are forced to model themselves upon them, or
to pretend to do so. Every province, every village, every congregation of
men, is, to a certain degree, what its aristocrats are: and public opinion
varies accordingly, and is, in one place, severe, in another, lax. The
present anarchy and upheaval of the majority will not change the unvoiced
power of the minority. It is more dangerous for them to be uprooted from
their native soil and scattered far and wide in the great cities. But
even so, lost amid strange surroundings, living in isolation, yet the
individualities of the good stock persist and never mix with those about
them.--Sidonie knew nothing, wished to know nothing, of all that Christophe
had seen in Paris. She was no more interested in the sentimental and
unclean literature of the newspapers than in the political news. She did
not even know that there were Popular Universities: and, if she had known,
it is probable that she would have put herself out as little to go to them
as she did to hear a sermon. She did her work, and thought for herself: she
was not concerned with what other people thought. Christophe congratulated
"Why is that surprising?" she asked. "I am like everybody else. You haven't
met any French people."
"I've been living among them for a year," said Christophe, "and I haven't
met a single one who thought of anything but amusing himself or of aping
those who amuse him."
"That's true," said Sidonie. "You have only seen rich people. The rich are
the same everywhere. You've seen nothing at all."
"That's true," said Christophe. "I'm beginning."
For the first time he caught a glimpse of the people of France, men and
women who seem to be built for eternity, who are one with the earth, who,
like the earth, have seen so many conquering races, so many masters of a
day, pass away, while they themselves endure and do not pass.
* * * * *
When he was getting better and was allowed to get up for a little, the
first thing he thought of was to pay Sidonie back for the expenses she
had incurred during his illness. It was impossible for him to go about
Paris looking for work, and he had to bring himself to write to Hecht:
he asked him for an advance on account of future work. With his amazing
combination of indifference and kindliness Hecht made him wait a fortnight
for a reply--a fortnight during which Christophe tormented himself and
practically refused to touch any of the food Sidonie brought him, and would
only accept a little bread and milk, which she forced him to take, and then
he grumbled and was angry with himself because he had not earned it: then,
without a word, Hecht sent him the sum he asked: and not once during the
months of Christophe's illness did Hecht make any inquiry after him. He had
a genius for making himself disliked even when he was doing a kindness.
Even in his kindness Hecht could not be generous.
Sidonie came every day in the afternoon and again in the evening. She
cooked Christophe's dinner for him. She made no noise, but went quietly
about her business: and when she saw the dilapidated condition of his
clothes she took them away to mend them. Insensibly there had crept an
element of affection into their relation. Christophe talked at length about
his mother: and that touched Sidonie: she would put herself in Louisa's
place, alone in Germany: and she had a maternal feeling for Christophe, and
when he talked to her he tried to trick his need of mothering and love,
from which a man suffers most when he is weak and ill. He felt nearer
Louisa with Sidonie than with anybody else. Sometimes he would confide his
artistic troubles to her. She would pity him gently, though she seemed to
regard such sorrows of the intellect ironically. That, too, reminded him of
his mother and comforted him.
He tried to get her to confide in him: but she was much less open than he.
He asked her jokingly why she did not get married. And she would reply in
her usual tone of mocking resignation that "it was not allowed for servants
to marry: it complicates things too much. Besides, she was sure to make a
bad choice, and that is not pleasant. Men are sordid creatures. They come
courting when a woman has money, squeeze it out of her, and then leave her
in the lurch. She had seen too many cases of that and was not inclined to
do the same."--She did not tell him of her own unfortunate experience:
her future husband had left her when he found that she was giving all
her earnings to her family.--Christophe used to see her in the courtyard
mothering the children of a family living in the house. When she met
them alone on the stairs she would sometimes embrace them passionately.
Christophe would fancy her occupying the place of a lady of his
acquaintance: she was not a fool, and she was no plainer than many another
woman: he declared that in the lady's place she would have been the better
woman of the two. There are so many splendid lives hidden in the world,
unknown and unsuspected! And, on the other hand, the hosts of the living
dead, who encumber the earth, and take up the room and the happiness of
others in the light of the sun!...
Christophe had no ulterior thought. He was fond, too fond of her: he let
her coddle him like a child.
Some days Sidonie would be queer and depressed: but he attributed that to
her work. Once when they were talking she got up suddenly and left him,
making some excuse about her work. Finally, after a day when Christophe had
been more confidential than usual, she broke off her visits for a time: and
when she came back she would only talk to him constrainedly. He wondered
what he could have done to offend her. He asked her. She replied quickly
that he had not offended her: but she stayed away again. A few days later
she told him that she was going away: she had given up her situation and
was leaving the house. Coldly and reservedly she thanked him for all
his kindness, told him she hoped he would soon recover, and that his
mother would remain in good health, and then she said good-by. He was so
astonished at her abrupt departure that he did not know what to say: he
tried to discover her reasons: she replied evasively. He asked her where
she was going: she did not reply, and, to cut short his questions, she got
up to go. As she reached the door he held out his hand: she grasped it
warmly: but her face did not betray her, and to the end she maintained her
stiff, cold manner. She went away.
He never understood why.
* * * * *
He dragged through the winter--a wet, misty, muddy winter. Weeks on end
without sun. Although Christophe was better he was by no means recovered.
He still had a little pain in his lungs, a lesion which healed slowly, and
fits of coughing which kept him from sleeping at night. The doctor had
forbidden him to go out. He might just as well have ordered him to go to
the Riviera or the Canary Islands. He had to go out! If he did not go out
to look for his dinner, his dinner would certainly not come to look for
him.--And he was ordered medicines which he could not afford. And so he
gave up consulting doctors: it was a waste of money: and besides he was
always ill at ease with them: they could not understand each other: they
lived in separate worlds. They had an ironical and rather contemptuous pity
for the poor devil of an artist who claimed to be a world to himself, and
was swept along like a straw by the river of life. He was humiliated by
being examined, and prodded, and handled by these men. He was ashamed of
his sick body, and thought:
"How glad I shall be when _it_ is dead!"
In spite of loneliness, illness, poverty, and so many other causes of
suffering, Christophe bore his lot patiently. He had never been so patient.
He was surprised at himself. Illness is often a blessing. By ravaging the
body it frees the soul and purifies it: during the nights and days of
forced inaction thoughts arise which are fearful of the raw light of day,
and are scorched by the sun of health. No man who has never been ill can
have a thorough knowledge of himself.
His illness had, in a queer way, soothed Christophe. It had purged him of
the coarser elements of his nature. Through his most subtle nerves he felt
the world of mysterious forces which dwell in each of us, though the tumult
of life prevents our hearing them. Since his visit to the Louvre, in his
hours of fever, the smallest memories of which were graven upon his mind,
he had lived in an atmosphere like that of the Rembrandt picture, warm,
soft, profound. He too felt in his heart the magic beams of an invisible
sun. And although he did not believe, he knew that he was not alone: a God
was holding him by the hand, and leading him to the predestined goal of his
endeavors. He trusted in Him like a little child.
For the first time for years he felt that he must rest. The lassitude of
his convalescence was in itself a rest for him after the extraordinary
tension of mind that had gone before his illness and had left him still
exhausted. Christophe, who for many months had been continually on the
alert and strained upon his guard, felt the fixity of his gaze slowly
relax. He was not less strong for it: he was more human. The great though
rather monstrous quality of life of the man of genius had passed into the
background: he found himself a man like the rest, purged of the fanaticism
of his mind, and all the hardness and mercilessness of his actions. He
hated nothing: he gave no thought to things that exasperated him, or, if
he did, he shrugged them off: he thought less of his own troubles and more
of the troubles of others. Since Sidonie had reminded him of the silent
suffering of the lowly, fighting on without complaint, all over the world,
he forgot himself in them. He who was not usually sentimental now had
periods of that mystic tenderness which is the flower of weakness and
sickness. In the evening, as he sat with his elbows on the window-sill,
gazing down into the courtyard and listening to all the mysterious noises
of the night,... a voice singing in a house near by, made moving by the
distance, or a little girl artlessly strumming Mozart,... he thought:
"All you whom I love though I know you not! You whom life has not sullied;
you, who dream of great things, that you know to be impossible, while you
fight for them against the envious world,--may you be happy--it is so good
to be happy!... Oh, my friends, I know that you are there, and I hold
my arms out to you.... There is a wall between us. Stone by stone I am
breaking it down, but I am myself broken in the labor of it. Shall we ever
be together? Shall I reach you before another wall is raised up between us:
the wall of death?... No matter! Though all my life I am alone, so only I
may work for you, do you good, and you may love me a little, later on, when
I am dead!..."
* * * * *
So the convalescent Christophe was nursed by those two good foster-mothers
"_Liebe und Noth_" (Love and Poverty).
* * * * *
While his will was thus in abeyance Christophe felt a longing to be with
people. And, although he was still very weak, and it was a very foolish
thing to do, he used to go out early in the morning when the stream of
people poured out of the residential streets on their way to their work,
or in the evening, when they were returning. His desire was to plunge into
the refreshing bath of human sympathy. Not that he spoke to a soul. He did
not even try to do so. It was enough for him to watch the people pass, and
guess what they were, and love them. With fond pity he used to watch the
workers hurrying along, all, as it were, already worn out by the business
of the day,--young men and girls, with pale faces, worn expressions, and
strange smiles,--thin, eager faces beneath which there passed desires and
anxieties, all with a changing irony,--all so intelligent, too intelligent,
a little morbid, the dwellers in a great city. They all hurried along, the
men reading the papers, the women nibbling and munching. Christophe would
have given a month of his life to let one poor girl, whose eyes were
swollen with sleep, who passed near him with a little nervous, mincing
walk, sleep on for a few hours more. Oh! how she would have jumped at it,
if she had been offered the chance! He would have loved to pluck all the
idle rich people out of their rooms, hermetically sealed at that hour,
where they were so ungratefully lying at their ease, and replace them in
their beds, in their comfortable existence, with all these eager, weary
bodies, these fresh souls, not abounding with life, but alive and greedy
of life. In that hour he was full of kindness towards them: and he smiled
at their alert, thin little faces, in which there were cunning and
ingenuousness, a bold and simple desire for pleasure, and, behind all,
honest little souls, true and industrious. And he was not hurt when some
of the girls laughed in his face, or nudged each other to point out the
strange young man staring at them so hard.
And he would lounge about the riverside, lost in dreams. That was his
favorite walk. It did a little satisfy his longing for the great river that
had sung the lullaby of his childhood. Ah! it was not _Vater Rhein_! It had
none of his all-puissant might: none of the wide horizons, vast plains over
which the mind soars and is lost. A river with gray eyes, gowned in pale
green, with finely drawn, correct features, a graceful river, with supple
movements, wearing with sparkling nonchalance the sumptuous and sober garb
of her city, the bracelets of its bridges, the necklets of its monuments,
and smiling at her own prettiness, like a lovely woman strolling through
the town.... The delicious light of Paris! That was the first thing that
Christophe had loved in the city: it filled his being sweetly, sweetly: and
imperceptibly, slowly, it changed his heart. It was to him the most lovely
music, the only music in Paris. He would spend hours in the evening walking
by the river, or in the gardens of old France, tasting the harmonies
of the light of day touching the tall trees bathed in purple mist, the
gray statues and ruins, the worn stones of the royal monuments which had
absorbed the light of centuries,--that smooth atmosphere, made of pale
sunshine and milky vapor, in which, on a cloud of silvery dust, there
floats the laughing spirit of the race.
One evening he was leaning over the parapet near the Saint-Michel Bridge,
and looking at the water and absently turning over the books in one of the
little boxes. He chanced upon a battered old volume of Michelet and opened
it at random. He had already read a certain amount of that historian, and
had been put off by his Gallic boasting, his trick of making himself drunk
with words, and his halting style. But that evening he was held from the
very first words: he had lighted on the trial of Joan of Arc. He knew the
Maid of Orleans through Schiller: but hitherto she had only been a romantic
heroine who had been endowed with an imaginary life by a great poet.
Suddenly the reality was presented to him and gripped his attention. He
read on and on, his heart aching for the tragic horror of the glorious
story: and when he came to the moment when Joan learns that she is to die
that evening and faints from fear, his hands began to tremble, tears came
into his eyes, and he had to stop. He was weak from his illness: he had
become absurdly sensitive, and was himself exasperated by it.--When he
turned once more to the book it was late and the bookseller was shutting up
his boxes. He decided to buy the book and hunted through his pockets: he
had exactly six sous. Such scantiness was not rare and did not bother him:
he had paid for his dinner, and counted on getting some money out of Hecht
next day for some copying he had done. But it was hard to have to wait a
day! Why had he spent all he had on his dinner? Ah! if only he could offer
the bookseller the bread and sausages that were in his pockets, in payment!
Next morning, very early, he went to Hecht's to get his money: but as
he was passing the bridge which bears the name of the archangel of
battle--"the brother in Paradise" of Joan of Arc--he could not help
stopping. He found the precious book once more in the bookseller's box, and
read it right through: he stayed reading it for nearly two hours and missed
his appointment with Hecht: and he wasted the whole day waiting to see him.
At last he managed to get his new commission and the money for the old. At
once he rushed back to buy the book, although he had read it. He was afraid
it might have been sold to another purchaser. No doubt that would not have
mattered much: it was quite easy to get another copy: but Christophe did
not know whether the book was rare or not: and besides, he wanted that
particular book and no other. Those who love books easily become fetish
worshipers. The pages from which the well of dreams springs forth are
sacred to them, even when they are dirty and spotted.
In the silence of the night, in his room, Christophe read once more the
Gospel of the Passion of Joan of Arc: and now there was nothing to make
him restrain his emotion. He was filled with tenderness, pity, infinite
sorrow for the poor little shepherdess in her coarse peasant clothes,
tall, shy, soft-voiced, dreaming to the sound of bells--(she loved them as
he did)--with her lovely smile, full of understanding and kindness, and
her tears, that flowed so readily--tears of love, tears of pity, tears of
weakness: for she was at once so manlike and so much a woman, the pure and
valiant girl, who tamed the savage lusts of an army of bandits, and calmly,
with her intrepid sound good sense, her woman's subtlety, and her gentle
persistency, alone, betrayed on all hands, for months together foiled the
threats and hypocritical tricks of a gang of churchmen and lawyers,--wolves
and foxes with bloody eyes and fangs--who closed a ring about her.
What touched Christophe most nearly was her kindness, her tenderness of
heart,--weeping after her victories, weeping over her dead enemies, over
those who had insulted her, giving them consolation when they were wounded,
aiding them in death, knowing no bitterness against those who sold her,
and even at the stake, when the flames roared about her, thinking not of
herself, thinking only of the monk who exorcised her, and compelling him
to depart. She was "gentle in the most bitter fight, good even amongst
the most evil, peaceful even in war. Into war, the triumph of Satan, she
brought the very Spirit of God."
And Christophe, thinking of himself, said:
"And into my fight I have not brought enough of the Spirit of God."
He read the fine words of the evangelist of Joan of Arc:
"Be kind, and seek always to be kinder, amid all the injustice of men and
the hardships of Fate.... Be gentle and of a good countenance even in
bitter quarrels, win through experience, and never let it harm that inward
And he said within himself:
"I have sinned. I have not been kind. I have not shown good-will towards
men. I have been too hard.--Forgive me. Do not think me your enemy, you
against whom I wage war! For you too I seek to do good.... But you must be
kept from doing evil...."
And, as he was no saint, the thought of them was enough to kindle his anger
again. What he could least forgive them was that when he saw them, and saw
France, through them, he found it impossible to conceive such a flower of
purity and poetic heroism ever springing from such a soil. And yet it was
so. Who could say that such a flower would not spring from it a second
time? The France of to-day could not be worse than that of Charles VII, the
debauched and prostituted nation from which the Maid sprang. The temple was
empty, fouled, half in ruins. No matter! God had spoken in it.
Christophe was seeking a Frenchman whom he could love for the love of
It was about the end of March. For months Christophe had not spoken to a
soul nor had a single letter, except every now and then a few lines from
his mother, who did not know that he was ill and did not tell him that she
herself was ill. His relation with the outside world was confined to his
journeys to the music shop to take or bring away his work. He arranged to
go there at times when he knew that Hecht would be out--to avoid having
to talk to him. The precaution was superfluous, for the only time he met
Hecht, he hardly did more than ask him a few indifferent questions about
He was immured in a prison of silence when, one morning, he received an
invitation from Madame Roussin to a musical _soiree_: a famous quartet was
to play. The letter was very friendly in tone, and Roussin had added a few
cordial lines. He was not very proud of his quarrel with Christophe: the
less so as he had since quarreled with the singer and now condemned her in
no sparing terms. He was a good fellow: he never bore those whom he had
wronged any grudge. And he would have thought it preposterous for any of
his victims to be more thin-skinned than himself. And so, when he had the
pleasure of seeing them again, he never hesitated about holding out his
Christophe's first impulse was to shrug his shoulders and vow that he
would not go. But he wavered as the day of the concert came nearer. He was
stifling from never hearing a human voice or a note of music. But he vowed
again that he would never set foot inside the Roussins' house. But when the
day came he went, raging against his own cowardice.
He was ill rewarded. Hardly did he find himself once more in the gathering
of politicians and snobs than he was filled with an aversion for them more
violent than ever: for during his months of solitude he had lost the trick
of such people. It was impossible to hear the music: it was a profanation;
Christophe made up his mind to go as soon as the first piece was over.
He glanced round among the faces of those people who were even physically
so antipathetic to him. At the other end of the room he saw a face, the
face of a young man, looking at him, and then he turned away at once.
There was in the face a strange quality of candor which among such bored,
indifferent people was most striking. The eyes were timid, but dear and
direct. French eyes, which, once they marked a man, went on looking at
him with absolute truth, hiding nothing of the soul behind them, missing
nothing of the soul of the man at whom they gazed. They were familiar to
Christophe. And yet he did not know the face. It was that of a young man
between twenty and twenty-five, short, slightly stooping, delicate-looking,
beardless, and melancholy, with chestnut hair, irregular features, though
fine, a certain crookedness which gave it an expression not so much of
uneasiness as of bashfulness, which was not without charm, and seemed to
contradict the tranquillity of the eyes. He was standing in an open door:
and nobody was paying any attention to him. Once more Christophe looked
at him: and once more he met his eyes, which turned away timidly with a
delightful awkwardness: once more he "recognized" them: it seemed to him
that he had seen them in another face.
Christophe, as usual, was incapable of concealing what he felt, and moved
towards the young man: but as he made his way he wondered what he should
say to him: and he hesitated and stood still looking to right and left, as
though he were moving without any fixed object. But the young man was not
taken in, and saw that Christophe was moving towards himself: he was so
nervous at the thought of speaking to him that he tried to slip into the
next room: but he was glued to his place by his very bashfulness. So they
came face to face. It was some moments before they could find anything to
say. And as they went on standing like that each thought the other must
think him absurd. At last Christophe looked straight at the young man, and
said with a smile, in a gruff voice:
"You're not a Parisian?"
In spite of his embarrassment the young man smiled at this unexpected
question, and replied in the negative. His light voice, with its hint of a
musical quality, was like some delicate instrument.
"I thought not," said Christophe. And, as he saw that he was a little
confused by the singular remark, he added:
"It is no reproach."
But the young man's embarrassment was only increased.
There was another silence. The young man made an effort to speak: his lips
trembled: it seemed that he had a sentence on the tip of his tongue, but he
could not bring himself to speak it. Christophe eagerly studied his mobile
face, the muscles of which he could see twitching under the clear skin:
he did not seem to be of the same clay as the people all about him in the
room, with their heavy, coarse faces, which were only a continuation of
their necks, part and parcel of their bodies. In the young man's face the
soul shone forth: in every part of it there was a spiritual life.
He could not bring himself to speak. Christophe went on genially:
"What are you doing among all these people?"
He spoke out loud with that strange freedom of manner which made him hated.
His friend blushed and could not help looking round to see if he had been
heard: and Christophe disliked the movement. Then, instead of answering, he
asked with a shy, sweet smile:
Christophe began to laugh as usual, rather loudly.
"Yes. And I," he said delightedly.
The young man at last summoned up his courage.
"I love your music so much!" he said, in a choking voice.
Then he stopped and tried once more, vainly, to get the better of his
shyness. He was blushing, and knew it: and he blushed the more, up to his
temples and round to his ears. Christophe looked at him with a smile, and
longed to take him in his arms. The young man looked at him timidly.
"No," he said. "Of course, I can't ... I can't talk about that ... not
Christophe took his hand with a grin. He felt the stranger's thin fingers
tremble in his great paw and press it with an involuntary tenderness: and
the young man felt Christophe's paw affectionately crush his hand. They
ceased to hear the chatter of the people round them. They were alone
together and they knew that they were friends.
It was only for a second, for then Madame Roussin touched Christophe on the
arm with her fan and said:
"I see that you have introduced yourselves and don't need me to do so. The
boy came on purpose to meet you this evening."
Then, rather awkwardly, they parted.
Christophe asked Madame Roussin:
"Who is he?"
"What?" said she. "You don't know him? He is a young poet and writes very
prettily. One of your admirers. He is a good musician and plays the piano
quite nicely. It is no good discussing you in his presence: he is mad
about you. The other day he all but came to blows about you with Lucien
"Oh! Bless him for that!" said Christophe.
"Yes, I know you are unjust to poor Lucien. And yet he too loves your
"Ah! don't tell me that! I should hate myself."
"It is so, I assure you."
"Never! never! I will not have it. I forbid him to do so."
"Just what your admirer said. You are both mad. Lucien was just explaining
one of your compositions to us. The shy boy you met just now got up,
trembling with anger, and forbade him to mention your name. Think of it!...
Fortunately I was there. I laughed it off: Lucien did the same: and the
boy was utterly confused and relapsed into silence: and in the end he
"Poor boy!" said Christophe.
He was touched by it.
"Where did he go?" he asked, without listening to Madame Roussin, who had
already begun to talk about something else.
He went to look for him. But his unknown friend had disappeared. Christophe
returned to Madame Roussin:
"Tell me, what is his name?"
"Who?" she asked.
"The boy you were talking about just now."
"Your young poet?" she said. "His name is Olivier Jeannin."
The name rang in Christophe's ears like some familiar melody. The shadowy
figure of a girl floated for a moment before his eyes. But the new image,
the image of his friend blotted it out at once.
* * * * *
Christophe went home. He strode through the streets of Paris mingling with
the throng. He saw nothing, heard nothing; he was insensible to everything
about him. He was like a lake cut off from the rest of the world by a ring
of mountains. Not a breath stirred, not a sound was heard, all was still.
Peace. He said to himself over and over again:
"I have a friend."
The Jeannins were one of those old French families who have remained
stationary for centuries in the same little corner of a province, and have
kept themselves pure from any infusion of foreign blood. There are more
of them than one would think in France, in spite of all the changes in
the social order: it would need a great upheaval to uproot them from
the soil to which they are held by so many ties, the profound nature of
which is unknown to them. Reason counts for nothing in their devotion to
the soil, and interest for very little: and as for sentimental historic
memories, they only hold good for a few literary men. What does bind them
irresistibly is the obscure though very strong feeling, common to the dull
and the intelligent alike, of having been for centuries past a parcel of
the land, of living in its life, breathing the same air, hearing the heart
of it beating against their own, like the heart of the beloved, feeling its
slightest tremor, the changing hours and seasons and days, bright or dull,
and hearing the voices and the silence of all things in Nature. It is not
always the most beautiful country, nor that which has the greatest charm of
life, that most strongly grips the affections, but rather it is the region
where the earth seems simplest and most humble, nearest man, speaking to
him in a familiar friendly tongue.
Such was the country in the center of France where the Jeannins lived.
A flat, damp country, an old sleepy little town, wearily gazing at its
reflection in the dull waters of a still canal: round about it were
monotonous fields, plowed fields, meadows, little rivers, woods, and again
monotonous fields.... No scenery, no monuments, no memories. Nothing
attractive. It is all dull and oppressive. In its drowsy torpor is a hidden
force. The soul tasting it for the first time suffers and revolts against
it. But those who have lived with it for generations cannot break free:
it eats into their very bones: and the stillness of it, the harmonious
dullness, the monotony, have a charm for them and a sweet savor which they
cannot analyze, which they malign, love, and can never forget.
* * * * *
The Jeannins had always lived there. The family could be traced back to
the sixteenth century, living in the town or its neighborhood: for of
course they had a great-uncle who had devoted his life to drawing up the
genealogical tree of their obscure line of humble, industrious people:
peasants, farmers, artisans, then clerks, country notaries, working in
the subprefecture of the district, where Augustus Jeannin, the father of
the present head of the house, had successfully established himself as a
banker: he was a clever man, with a peasant's cunning and obstinacy, but
honest as men go, not over-scrupulous, a great worker, and a good liver:
he had made himself respected and feared everywhere by his genial malice,
his bluntness of speech, and his wealth. Short, thick-set, vigorous, with
little sharp eyes set in a big red face, pitted with smallpox, he had been
known as a petticoat-hunter: and he had not altogether lost his taste for
it. He loved a spicy yarn and good eating. It was a sight to see him at
meals, with his son Antoine sitting opposite him, with a few old friends
of their kidney: the district judge, the notary, the Archdeacon of the
Cathedral:--(old Jeannin loved stuffing the priest: but also he could stuff
with the priest, if the priest were good at it):--hearty old fellows built
on the same Rabelaisian lines. There was a running fire of terrific stories
to the accompaniment of thumps on the table and roars of laughter, and
the row they made could be heard by the servants in the kitchen and the
neighbors in the street.
Then old Augustus caught a chill, which turned to pneumonia, through going
down into his cellars one hot summer's day in his shirt-sleeves to bottle
his wine. In less than twenty-four hours he had departed this life for the
next world, in which he hardly believed, properly equipped with all the
Sacraments of the Church, having, like a good Voltairian provincial,
submitted to it at the last moment in order to pacify his women, and also
because it did not matter one way or the other.... And then, one never
His son Antoine succeeded him in business. He was a fat little man,
rubicund and expansive, clean-shaven, except for his mutton-chop whiskers,
and he spoke quickly and with a slight stutter, in a loud voice,
accompanying his remarks with little quick, curt gestures. He had not his
father's grasp of finance: but he was quite a good manager. He had only
to look after the established undertakings, which went on developing day
by day, by the mere fact of their existence. He had the advantage of a
business reputation in the district, although he had very little to do
with the success of the firm's ventures. He only contributed method and
industry. For the rest he was absolutely honorable, and was everywhere
deservedly esteemed. His pleasant unctuous manners, though perhaps a little
too familiar for some people, a little too expansive, and just a little
common, had won him a very genuine popularity in the little town and
the surrounding country. He was more lavish with his sympathy than with
his money: tears came readily to his eyes: and the sight of poverty so
sincerely moved him that the victim of it could not fail to be touched
Like most men living in small towns, his thoughts were much occupied with
politics. He was an ardent moderate Republican, an intolerant Liberal, a
patriot, and, like his father, extremely anti-clerical. He was a member of
the Municipal Council: and, like the rest of his colleagues, he delighted
in playing tricks on the _cure_ of the parish, or on the Lent preacher,
who roused so much enthusiasm in the ladies of the town. It must not be
forgotten that the anti-clericalism of the little towns in France is
always, more or less, an episode in domestic warfare, and is a subtle form
of that silent, bitter struggle between husbands and wives, which goes on
in almost every house.
Antoine Jeannin had also some literary pretensions. Like all provincials of
his generation, he had been brought up on the Latin Classics, many pages of
which he knew by heart, and also a mass of proverbs, and on La Fontaine and
Boileau,--the Boileau of _L'Art Poetique_, and, above all, of _Lutrin_,--on
the author of _La Pucelle_, and the _poetae minores_ of the eighteenth
century, in whose manner he squeezed out a certain number of poems. He was
not the only man of his acquaintance possessed by that particular mania,
and his reputation gained by it. His rhyming jests, his quatrains,
couplets, acrostics, epigrams, and songs, which were sometimes rather
risky, though they had a certain coarsely witty quality, were often quoted.
He was wont to sing the mysteries of digestion: the Muse of the Loire
districts is fain to blow her trumpet like the famous devil of Dante:
"... _Ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta._"
This sturdy, jovial, active little man had taken to wife a woman of a
very different character,--the daughter of a country magistrate, Lucie de
Villiers. The De Villiers--or rather Devilliers, for their name had split
in its passage through time, like a stone which cracks in two as it goes
hurtling down a hillside--were magistrates from father to son; they were of
that old parliamentary race of Frenchmen who had a lofty idea of the law,
and duty, the social conventions, their personal, and especially their
professional, dignity, which was fortified by perfect honesty, tempered
with a certain conscious uprightness. During the preceding century they had
been infected by nonconformist Jansenism, which had given them a grumbling
pessimistic quality, as well as a contempt for the Jesuit attitude of mind.
They did not see life as beautiful: and, rather than smooth away life's
difficulties, they preferred to exaggerate them so as to have good reason
to complain. Lucie de Villiers had certain of these characteristics, which
were so directly opposed to the not very refined optimism of her husband.
She was tall--taller than he by a head--slender, well made; she dressed
well and elegantly, though in a rather sober fashion, which made her
seem--perhaps designedly--older than she was: she was of a high moral
quality: but she was hard on other people; she would countenance no fault,
and hardly even a caprice: she was thought cold and disdainful. She was
very pious, and that gave rise to perpetual disputes with her husband.
For the rest, they were very fond of each other: and, in spite of their
frequent disagreements, they could not have lived without each other. They
were both rather unpractical: he from want of perception--(he was always
in danger of being taken in by good looks and fine words),--she from her
absolute inexperience of business--(she knew nothing about it: and having
always been kept outside it, she took no interest in it).
* * * * *
They had two children: a girl, Antoinette, the elder by five years; and a
Antoinette was a pretty dark-haired child, with a charming, honest face of
the French type, round, with sharp eyes, a round forehead, a fine chin,
a little straight nose--"one of those very pretty, fine, noble noses" (as
an old French portrait-painter says so charmingly) "in which there was
a certain imperceptible play of expression, which animated the face,
and revealed the subtlety of the workings of her mind as she talked or
listened." She had her father's gaiety and carelessness.
Olivier was a delicate fair boy, short, like his father, but very different
in character. His health had been undermined by one illness after another
when he was a child: and although, as a result, he was petted by his
family, his physical weakness had made him a melancholy, dreamy little boy,
who was afraid of death and very poorly equipped for life. He was shy, and
preferred to be alone: he avoided the society of other children: he was
ill at ease with them: he hated their games and quarrels: their brutality
filled him with horror. He let them strike him, not from want of courage,
but from timidity, because he was afraid to defend himself, afraid of
hurting them: they would have bullied the life out of him, but for the
safeguard of his father's position. He was tender-hearted and morbidly
sensitive: a word, a sign of sympathy, a reproach, were enough to make him
burst into tears. His sister was much sturdier, and laughed at him, and
called him a "little fountain."
The two children were devoted to each other: but they were too different
to live together. They went their own ways and lived in their own dreams.
As Antoinette grew up, she became prettier: people told her so, and she
was well aware of it: it made her happy, and she wove romances about the
future. Olivier, in his sickly melancholy, was always rubbed up the wrong
way by contact with the outer world: and he withdrew into the circle of his
own absurd little brain: and he told himself stories. He had a burning,
almost feminine, longing to love and be loved: and, living alone, away from
boys of his own age, he had invented two or three imaginary friends: one
was called Jean, another Etienne, another Francois: he was always with
them. He never slept well, and he was always dreaming. In the morning, when
he was lifted out of bed, he would forget himself, and sit with his bare
legs dangling down, or sometimes with two stockings on one leg. He would go
off into a dream with his hands in the basin. He would forget himself at
his desk in the middle of writing or learning a lesson: he would dream for
hours on end: and then he would suddenly wake up, horrified to find that he
had learned nothing. At dinner he was abashed if any one spoke to him: he
would reply two minutes after he had been spoken to: he would forget what
he was going to say in the middle of a sentence. He would doze off to the
murmuring of his thoughts and the familiar sensations of the monotonous
provincial days that marched so slowly by: the great half-empty house, only
part of which they occupied: the vast and dreadful barns and cellars: the
mysterious closed rooms, the fastened shutters, the covered furniture,
veiled mirrors, and the chandeliers wrapped up: the old family portraits
with their haunting smiles: the Empire engravings, with their virtuous,
suave heroism: _Alcibiades and Socrates in the House of the Courtezan_,
_Antiochus and Stratonice_, _The Story of Epaminondas_, _Belisarius
Begging_.... Outside, the sound of the smith shoeing horses in the smithy
opposite, the uneven clink of the hammers on the anvil, the snorting of
the broken-winded horses, the smell of the scorched hoofs, the slapping of
the pats of the washerwomen kneeling by the water, the heavy thuds of the
butcher's chopper next door, the clatter of a horse's hoofs on the stones
of the street, the creaking of a pump, or the drawbridge over the canal,
the heavy barges laden with blocks of wood, slowly passing at the end
of the garden, drawn along by a rope: the little tiled courtyard, with
a square patch of earth, in which two lilac-trees grew, in the middle
of a clump of geraniums and petunias: the tubs of laurel and flowering
pomegranate on the terrace above the canal: sometimes the noise of a fair
in the square hard by, with peasants in bright blue smocks, and grunting
pigs.... And on Sunday, at church, the precentor, who sang out of tune, and
the old priest, who went to sleep as he was saying Mass: the family walk
along the station road, where all the time he had to take off his hat
politely to other wretched beings, who were under the same impression of
the necessity of going for a walk all together,--until at last they reached
the sunny fields, above which larks soared invisible,--or along by the
still mirror of the canal, on both sides of which were poplars rustling in
line.... And then there was the great provincial Sunday dinner, when they
went on and on eating and talking about food learnedly and with gusto: for
everybody was a connoisseur: and, in the provinces, eating is the chief
occupation, the first of all the arts. And they would talk business,
and tell spicy yarns, and every now and then discuss their neighbors'
illnesses, going into endless detail.... And the little boy, sitting in his
corner, would make no more noise than a little mouse, pick at his food, eat
hardly anything, and listen with all his ears. Nothing escaped him: and
when he did not understand, his imagination supplied the deficiency. He had
that singular gift, which is often to be remarked in the children of old
families and an old stock, on which the imprint of the ages is too strongly
marked, of divining thoughts, which have never passed through their minds
before, and are hardly comprehensible to them.--Then there was the kitchen,
where bloody and succulent mysteries were concocted: and the old servant
who used to tell him frightful and droll stories.... At last came evening,
the silent flitting of the bats, the terror of the monstrous creatures
that were known to swarm in the dark depths of the old house: huge rats,
enormous hairy spiders: and he would say his prayers, kneeling at the, foot
of his bed, and hardly know what he was saying: the little cracked bell of
the convent hard by would sound the bed-time of the nuns;--and so to bed,
the Island of Dreams....
The best times of the year were those that they spent in spring and autumn
at their country house some miles away from the town. There he could dream
at his ease: he saw nobody. Like most of the children of their class, the
little Jeannins were kept apart from the common children: the children
of servants and farmers, who inspired them with fear and disgust. They
inherited from their mother an aristocratic--or, rather, essentially
middle-class--disdain for all who worked with their hands. Olivier would
spend the day perched up in the branches of an ash reading marvelous
stories: delightful folklore, the _Tales_ of Musaeus, or Madame d'Aulnoy,
or the _Arabian Nights_, or stories of travel. For he had that strange
longing for distant lands, "those oceanic dreams," which sometimes possess
the minds of boys in the little provincial towns of France. A thicket lay
between the house and himself, and he could fancy himself very far away.
But he knew that he was really near home, and was quite happy: for he did
not like straying too far alone: he felt lost with Nature. Round him the
wind whispered through the trees. Through the leaves that hid his nest
he could see the yellowing vines in the distance, and the meadows where
the straked cows were at pasture, filling the silence of the sleeping
country-side with their plaintive long-drawn lowing. The strident cocks
crowed to each other from farm to farm. There came up the irregular beat of
the flails in the barns. The fevered life of myriads of creatures swelled
and flowed through the peace of inanimate Nature. Uneasily Olivier would
watch the ever hurrying columns of the ants, and the bees big with their
booty, buzzing like organ-pipes, and the superb and stupid wasps who know
not what they want--the whole world of busy little creatures, all seemingly
devoured by the desire to reach their destination.... Where is it? They
do not know. No matter where! Somewhere.... Olivier was fearful amid that
blind and hostile world. He would start, like a young hare, at the sound of
a pine-cone falling, or the breaking of a rotten branch.... He would find
his courage again when he heard the rattling of the chains of the swing at
the other end of the garden, where Antoinette would be madly swinging to
She, too, would dream: but in her own fashion. She would spend the day
prowling round the garden, eating, watching, laughing, picking at the
grapes on the vines like a thrush, secretly plucking a peach from the
trellis, climbing a plum-tree, or giving it a little surreptitious shake as
she passed to bring down a rain of the golden mirabelles which melt in the
mouth like scented honey. Or she would pick the flowers, although that was
forbidden: quickly she would pluck a rose that she had been coveting all
day, and run away with it to the arbor at the end of the garden. Then she
would bury her little nose in the delicious scented flower, and kiss it,
and bite it, and suck it: and then she would conceal her booty, and hide it
in her bosom between her little breasts, at the wonder of whose coming she
would gaze in eager fondness.... And there was an exquisite forbidden joy
in taking off her shoes and stockings, and walking bare-foot on the cool
sand of the paths, and on the dewy turf, and on the stones, cold in the
shadow, burning in the sun, and in the little stream that ran along the
outskirts of the wood, and kissing with her feet, and legs, and knees,
water, earth, and light. Lying in the shadow of the pines, she would hold
her hands up to the sun, and watch the light play through them, and she
would press her lips upon the soft satin skin of her pretty rounded arms.
She would make herself crowns and necklets and gowns of ivy-leaves and
oak-leaves: and she would deck them with the blue thistles, and barberry
and little pine-branches, with their green fruit: and then she looked like
a little savage Princess. And she would dance for her own delight round and
round the fountain; and, with arms outstretched, she would turn and turn
until her head whirled, and she would slip down on the lawn and bury her
face in the grass, and shout with laughter for minutes on end, unable to
stop herself, without knowing why.
So the days slipped by for the two children, within hail of each other,
though neither ever gave a thought to the other,--except when it would
suddenly occur to Antoinette to play a prank on her brother, and throw
a handful of pine-needles in his face, or shake the tree in which he
was sitting, threatening to make him fall, or frighten him by springing
suddenly out upon him and yelling:
Sometimes she would be seized by a desire to tease him. She would make him
come down from his tree by pretending that her mother was calling him.
Then, when he had climbed down, she would take his place and refuse to
budge. Then Olivier would whine and threaten to tell. But there was no
danger of Antoinette staying in the tree for long: she could not keep still
for two minutes. When she had done with taunting Olivier from the top of
his tree, when she had thoroughly infuriated him and brought him almost to
tears, then she would slip down, fling her arms round him, shake him, and
laugh, and call him a "little muff," and roll him on the ground, and rub
his face with handfuls of grass. He would try to struggle: but he was
not strong enough. Then he would lie still, flat on his black, like a
cockchafer, with his thin arms pinned to the ground by Antoinette's strong
little hands: and he would look piteous and resigned. Antoinette could
not resist that: she would look at her vanquished prisoner, and burst out
laughing and kiss him suddenly, and let him go--not without the parting
attention of a little gag of fresh grass in his mouth: and that he detested
most of all, because it made him sick. And he would spit and wipe his
mouth, and storm at her, while she ran away as hard as she could, pealing
with laughter. She was always laughing. Even when she was asleep she
laughed. Olivier, lying awake in the next room, would suddenly start up in
the middle of the stories he was telling himself, at the sound of the wild
laughter and the muttered words which she would speak in the silence of the
night. Outside, the trees would creak with the wind, an owl would hoot, in
the distant villages and the farms in the heart of the woods dogs would
bark. In the dim phosphorescence of the night Olivier would see the dark,
heavy branches of the pines moving like ghosts outside his window: and
Antoinette's laughter would comfort him.
* * * * *
The two children were very religious, especially Olivier. Their father used
to scandalize them with his anti-clerical professions of faith, but he did
not interfere with them: and, at heart, like so many men of his class who
are unbelievers, he was not sorry that his family should believe for him:
for it is always good to have allies in the opposing camp, and one is never
sure which way Fortune will turn. He was a Deist, and he reserved the right
to summon a priest when the time came, as his father had done: even if it
did no good, it could do no harm: one insures against fire, even if one has
no reason to believe that the house will be burned down.
Olivier was morbidly inclined towards mysticism. There were times when he
doubted whether he existed. He was credulous and soft-hearted, and needed
a prop: he took a sorrowful delight in confession, in the comfort of
confiding in the invisible Friend, whose arms are always open to you, to
whom you can tell everything, who understands and forgives everything: he
tasted the sweetness of the waters of humility and love, from which the
soul issues pure, cleansed, and comforted. It was so natural to him to
believe, that he could not understand how any one could doubt: he thought
people did so from wickedness, and that God would punish them. He used to
pray secretly that his father might find grace: and he was delighted when,
one day, as they went into a little country church, he saw his father
mechanically make the sign of the cross. The stories of the Gospel were
mixed up in his mind with the marvelous tales of Ruebezahl, and Gracieuse
and Percinet, and the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid. When he was a little boy he
no more doubted the truth of the one than the other. And just as he was not
sure that he did not know Shacabac of the cleft lips, and the loquacious
barber, and the little hunchback of Casgar, just as when he was out walking
he used to look about for the black woodpecker which bears in its beak the
magic root of the treasure-seeker, so Canaan and the Promised Land became
in his childish imagination certain regions in Burgundy or Berrichon. A
round hill in the country, with a little tree, like a shabby old feather,
at the summit, seemed to him to be like the mountain where Abraham had
built his pyre. A large dead bush by the edge of a field was the Burning
Bush, which the ages had put out. Even when he was older, and his critical
faculty had been awakened, he loved to feed on the popular legends which
enshrined his faith: and they gave him so much pleasure, though he no
longer accepted them implicitly, that he would amuse himself by pretending
to do so. So for a long time on Easter Saturday he would look out for the
return of the Easter bells, which went away to Rome on the Thursday before,
and would come floating through the air with little streamers. He did
finally admit that it was not true: but he did not give up looking skywards
when he heard them ringing: and once--though he knew perfectly well that it
could not be--he fancied he saw one of them disappearing over the house
with blue ribbons.
It was vitally necessary for him to steep himself in the world of legend
and faith. He avoided life. He avoided himself. Thin, pale, puny, he
suffered from being so, and could not bear its being talked about. He was
naturally pessimistic, no doubt inheriting it from his mother, and his
pessimism was fed by his morbidity. He did not know it: thought everybody
must be like himself: and the queer little boy of ten, instead of romping
in the gardens during his play-time, used to shut himself up in his room,
and, carefully picking his words, wrote his will.
He used to write a great deal. Every evening he used laboriously and
secretly to write his diary--he did not know why, for he had nothing to
say, and he said nothing worth saying. Writing was an inherited mania with
him, the age-old itch of the French provincial--the old indestructible
stock--who every day, until the day of his death, with an idiotic patience
which is almost heroic, writes down in detail what he has seen, said, done,
heard, eaten, and drunk. For his own pleasure, entirely. It is not for
other eyes. No one will ever read it: he knows that: he never reads it
* * * * *
Music, like religion, was for Olivier a shelter from the too vivid light of
day. Both brother and sister were born musicians,--especially Olivier, who
had inherited the gift from his mother. Their taste, as it needed to be,
was excellent. There was no one capable of forming it in the province,
where no music was ever heard but that of the local band, which played
nothing but marches, or--on its good days--selections from Adolphe Adam,
and the church organist who played romanzas, and the exercises of the young
ladies of the town who strummed a few valses and polkas, the overture
to the _Caliph of Bagdad_, _la Chasse du Jeune Henri_, and two or three
sonatas of Mozart, always the same, and always with the same mistakes, on
instruments that were sadly out of tune. These things were invariably
included in the evening's program at parties. After dinner, those who had
talent were asked to display it: at first they would blush and refuse, but
then they would yield to the entreaties of the assembled company: and they
would play their stock pieces without their music. Every one would then
admire the artist's memory and her beautiful touch.
The ceremony was repeated at almost every party, and the thought of it
would altogether spoil the children's dinner. When they had to play the
_Voyage en Chine_ of Bazin, or their pieces of Weber as a duet, they gave
each other confidence, and were not very much afraid. But it was torture
to them to have to play alone. Antoinette, as usual, was the braver of the
two. Although it bored her dreadfully,--as she knew that there was no way
out of it, she would go through with it, sit at the piano with a determined
air, and gallop through her _rondo_ at breakneck speed, stumbling over
certain passages, make a hash of others, break off, turn her head, and say,
with a smile:
"Oh! I can't remember...."
Then she would start off again a few bars farther on, and go on to the end.
And she would make no attempt to conceal her pleasure at having finished:
and when she returned to her chair, amid the general chorus of praise, she
would laugh and say:
"I made such a lot of mistakes."
But Olivier was not so easy to handle. He could not bear making a show of
himself in public, and being "the observed of all observers." It was bad
enough for him to have to speak in company. But to have to play, especially
for people who did not like music--(that was obvious to him)--for people
whom music actually bored, people who only asked him to play as a matter of
habit, seemed to him to be neither more nor less than tyranny, and he tried
vainly to revolt against it. He would refuse obstinately. Sometimes he
would escape and go and hide in a dark room, in a passage, or even in the
barn, in spite of his horror of spiders. His refusal would make the guests
only insist the more, and they would quiz him: and his parents would
sternly order him to play, and even slap him when he was too impudently
rebellious. And in the end he always had to play,--of course unwillingly
and sulkily. And then he would suffer agonies all night because he had
played so badly, partly from vanity, and partly from his very genuine love
The taste of the little town had not always been so banal. There had been a
time when there were quite good chamber concerts at several houses. Madame
Jeannin used often to speak of her grandfather, who adored the violoncello,
and used to sing airs of Gluck, and Dalayrac, and Berton. There was a large
volume of them in the house, and a pile of Italian songs. For the old
gentleman was like M. Andrieux, of whom Berlioz said: "He _loved_ Gluck."
And he added bitterly: "He also _loved_ Piccinni."--Perhaps of the two
he preferred Piccinni. At all events, the Italian songs were in a large
majority in her grandfather's collection. They had been Olivier's first
musical nourishment. Not a very substantial diet, rather like those
sweetmeats with which provincial children are stuffed: they corrupt the
palate, destroy the tissues of the stomach, and there is always a danger of
their killing the appetite for more solid nutriment. But Olivier could not
be accused of greediness. He was never offered any more solid food. Having
no bread, he was forced to eat cake. And so, by force of circumstance, it
came about that Cimarosa, Paesiello, and Rossini fed the mystic, melancholy
little boy, who was more than a little intoxicated by his draughts of the
_Asti spumante_ poured out for him, instead of milk, by these bacchanalian
Satyrs, and the two lively, ingenuously, lasciviously smiling Bacchante of
Naples and Catania--Pergolesi and Bellini.
He played a great deal to himself, for his own pleasure. He was saturated
with music. He did not try to understand what he was playing, but gave
himself up to it. Nobody ever thought of teaching him harmony, and it never
occurred to him to learn it. Science and the scientific mind were foreign
to the nature of his family, especially on his mother's side. All the
lawyers, wits, and humanists of the De Villiers were baffled by any sort
of problem. It was told of a member of the family--a distant cousin--as a
remarkable thing that he had found a post in the _Bureau des Longitudes_.
And it was further told how he had gone mad. The old provincial
middle-classes, robust and positive in temper, but dull and sleepy as a
result of their gigantic meals and the monotony of their lives, are very
proud of their common sense: they have so much faith in it that they boast
that there is no difficulty which cannot be resolved by it: and they are
never very far from considering men of science as artists of a sort, more
useful than the others, but less exalted, because at least artists serve
no useful purpose, and there is a sort of distinction about their lounging
existence.--(Besides, every business man flatters himself that he might
have been an artist if he had cared about it.)--While scientists are not
far from being manual laborers,--(which is degrading),--just master-workmen
with more education, though they are a little cracked: they are mighty fine
on paper: but outside their arithmetic factories they're nobody. They would
not be much use without the guidance of common-sense people who have some
experience of life and business.
Unfortunately, it is not proven that their experience of life and business
goes so far as these people like to think. It is only a routine, ringing
the changes on a few easy cases. If any unforeseen position arises,
in which they have to decide quickly and vigorously, they are always
Antoine Jeannin was that sort of man. Everything was so nicely adjusted,
and his business jogged along so comfortably in its place in the life of
the province, that he had never encountered any serious difficulty. He had
succeeded to his father's position without having any special aptitude for
the business: and, as everything had gone well, he attributed it to his
own brilliant talents. He loved to say that it was enough to be honest,
methodical, and to have common sense: and he intended handing down his
business to his son, without any more regard for the boy's tastes than
his father had had for his own. He did not do anything to prepare him for
it. He let his children grow up as they liked, so long as they were good,
and, above all, happy: for he adored them. And so the two children were
as little prepared for the struggle of life as possible: they were like
hothouse flowers. But, surely, they would always live like that? In the
soft provincial atmosphere, in the bosom of their wealthy, influential
family, with a kindly, gay, jovial father, surrounded by friends, one of
the leading men of the district, life was so easy, so bright and smiling.
* * * * *
Antoinette was sixteen. Olivier was about to be confirmed. His mind was
filled with all kinds of mystic dreams. In her heart Antoinette heard
the sweet song of new-born hope soaring, like the lark in April, in the
springtime of her life. It was a joy to her to feel the flowering of her
body and soul, to know that she was pretty, and to be told so. Her father's
immoderate praises were enough to turn her head.
He was in ecstasies over her: he delighted in her little coquetries, to see
her eying herself in her mirror, to watch her little innocent tricks. He
would take her on his knees, and tease her about her childish love-affairs,
and the conquests she had made, and the suitors that he pretended had come
to him a-wooing: he would tell her their names: respectable citizens, each
more old and ugly than the last. And she would cry out in horror, and break
into rippling laughter, and put her arms about her father's neck, and press
her cheek close to his. And he would ask which was the happy man of her
choice: was it the District Attorney, who, the Jeannins' old maid used to
say, was as ugly as the seven deadly sins? Or was it the fat notary? And
she would slap him playfully to make him cease, or hold her hand over his
mouth. He would kiss her little hands, and jump her up and down on his
knees, and sing the old song
"What would you, pretty maid?
An ugly husband, eh?"
And she would giggle and tie his whiskers under his chin, and reply with
"A handsome husband I,
No ugly man, madame."
She would declare her intention of choosing for herself. She knew that she
was, or would be, very rich,--(her father used to tell her so at every
turn)--she was a "fine catch." The sons of the distinguished families of
the country were already courting her, setting a wide white net of flattery
and cunning snares to catch the little silver fish. But it looked as though
the fish would elude them all: for Antoinette saw all their tricks, and
laughed at them: she was quite ready to be caught, but not against her
will. She had already made up her mind to marry.
The noble family of the district--(there is generally one noble family to
every district, claiming descent from the ancient lords of the province,
though generally its origin goes no farther back than some purchaser of
the national estates, some commissary of the eighteenth century, or some
Napoleonic army-contractor)--the Bonnivets, who lived some few miles
away from the town, in a castle with tall towers with gleaming slates,
surrounded by vast woods, in which were innumerable fish-ponds, themselves
proposed for the hand of Mademoiselle Jeannin. Young Bonnivet was very
assiduous in his courtship of Antoinette. He was a handsome boy, rather
stout and heavy for his age, who did nothing but hunt and eat, and drink
and sleep: he could ride, dance, had charming manners, and was not more
stupid than other young men. He would ride into the town, or drive in his
buggy and call on the banker, on some business pretext: and sometimes he
would bring some game or a bouquet of flowers for the ladies. He would
seize the opportunity to pay court to Antoinette. They would walk in the
garden together. He would pay her lumbering compliments, and pull his
mustache, and make jokes, and make his spurs clatter on the tiles of the
terrace. Antoinette thought him charming. Her pride and her affections were
both tickled. She would swim in those first sweet hours of young love.
Olivier detested the young squire, because he was strong, heavy, brutal,
had a loud laugh, and hands that gripped like a vise, and a disdainful
trick of always calling him: "Boy ..." and pinching his cheeks. He detested
him above all,--without knowing it,--because he dared to love his sister:
... his sister, his very own, his, and she could not belong to any one
* * * * *
Disaster came. Sooner or later there must come a crisis in the lives of the
old middle-class families which for centuries have vegetated in the same
little corner of the earth, and have sucked it dry. They sleep in peace,
and think themselves as eternal as the earth that bears them. But the soil
beneath them is dry and dead, their roots are sapped: just the blow of
an ax, and down they come. Then they talk of accidents and unforeseen
misfortunes. There would have been no accident if there had been more
strength in the tree: or, at least, would have been no more than a sudden
storm, wrenching away a few branches, but never shaking the tree.
Antoine Jeannin was weak, trustful, and a little vain. He loved to throw
dust in people's eyes, and easily confounded "seeming" and "being." He
spent recklessly, though his extravagance, moderated by fits of remorse as
the result of the age-old habit of economy--(he would fling away pounds,
and haggle over a farthing)--never seriously impaired his capital. He was
not very cautious in business either. He never refused to lend money to his
friends: and it was not difficult to be a friend of his. He did not always
trouble to ask for a receipt: he kept a rough account of what was owing to
him, and never asked for payment before it was offered him. He believed
in the good faith of other men, and supposed that they would believe in
his own. He was much more timid than his jocular, easy-going manners led
people to suppose. He would never have dared to refuse certain importunate
borrowers, or to let his doubts of their solvency appear. That arose from a
mixture of kindness and pusillanimity. He did not wish to offend anybody,
and he was afraid of being insulted. So he was always giving way. And, by
way of carrying it off, he would lend with alacrity, as though his debtors
were doing him a service by borrowing his money. And he was not far from
believing it; his vanity and optimism had no difficulty in persuading him
that every business he touched was good business.
Such ways of dealing were not calculated to alienate the sympathies of his
debtors: he was adored by the peasants, who knew that they could always
count on his good nature, and never hesitated to resort to him. But the
gratitude of men--even of honest men--is a fruit that must be gathered in
good season. If it is left too long upon the tree, it quickly rots. After
a few months M. Jeannin's debtors would begin to think that his assistance
was their right: and they were even inclined to think that, as M. Jeannin
had been so glad to help them, it must have been to his interest to do so.
The best of them considered themselves discharged--if not of the debt, at
least of the obligation of gratitude--by the present of a hare they had
killed, or a basket of eggs from their fowlyard, which they would come and
offer to the banker on the day of the great fair of the year.
As hitherto only small sums had been lent, and M. Jeannin had only had to
do with fairly honest people, there were no very awkward consequences: the
loss of money--of which the banker never breathed a word to a soul--was
very small. But it was a very different matter when M. Jeannin knocked up
against a certain company promoter who was launching a great industrial
concern, and had got wind of the banker's easy-going ways and financial
resources. This gentleman, who wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor,
and pretended to be intimate with two or three Ministers, an Archbishop,
an assortment of senators, and various celebrities of the literary and
financial world, and to be in touch with an omnipotent newspaper, had a
very imposing manner, and most adroitly assumed the authoritative and
familiar tone most calculated to impress his man. By way of introduction
and recommendation, with a clumsiness which would have aroused the
suspicions of a quicker man than M. Jeannin, he produced certain ordinary
complimentary letters which he had received from the illustrious persons of
his acquaintance, asking him to dinner, or thanking him for some invitation
they had received: for it is well known that the French are never niggardly
with such epistolary small change, nor particularly chary of shaking hands
with, and accepting invitations from, an individual whom they have only
known for an hour--provided only that he amuses them and does not ask them
for money: and even as regards that, there are many who would not refuse to
lend their new friend money so long as others did the same. And it would
be a poor lookout for a clever man bent on relieving his neighbor of his
superfluous money if he could not find a sheep who could be induced to jump
the fence so that all the rest would follow.--If other sheep had not taken
the fence before him, M. Jeannin would have been the first. He was of the
woolly tribe which is made to be fleeced. He was seduced by his visitor's
exalted connections, his fluency and his trick of flattery, and also by the
first fine results of his advice. He only risked a little at first, and
won: then he risked much: finally he risked all: not only his own money,
but that of his clients as well. He did not tell them about it: he was sure
he would win: he wanted to overwhelm them with the great thing he had done
The venture collapsed. He heard of it indirectly through one of his
Parisian correspondents who happened to mention the new crash, without ever
dreaming that Jeannin was one of the victims: for the banker had not said
a word to anybody: with incredible irresponsibility, he had not taken the
trouble--even avoided--asking the advice of men who were in a position
to give him information: he had done the whole thing secretly, in the
infatuated belief in his infallible common sense, and he had been satisfied
with the vaguest knowledge of what he was doing. There are such moments
of aberration in life: moments, it would seem, when a man is marked out
for ruin, when he is fearful lest any one should come to his aid, when he
avoids all advice that might save him, hides away, and rushes headlong,
madly, shaking himself free for the fatal plunge.
M. Jeannin rushed to the station, utterly sick at heart, and took train for
Paris. He went to look for his man. He flattered himself with the hope that
the news might be false, or, at least, exaggerated. Naturally he did not
find the fellow, and received further news of the collapse, which was as
complete as possible. He returned distracted, and said nothing. No one
had any idea of it yet. He tried to gain a few weeks, a few days. In his
incurable optimism, he tried hard to believe that he would find a way to
make good, if not his own losses, at least those of his clients. He tried
various expedients, with a clumsy haste which would have removed any
chance of succeeding that he might have had. He tried to borrow, but was
everywhere refused. In his despair, he staked the little he had left on
wildly speculative ventures, and lost it all. From that moment there was
a complete change in his character. He relapsed into an alarming state of
terror: still he said nothing: but he was bitter, violent, harsh, horribly
sad. But still, when he was with strangers, he affected his old gaiety;
but no one could fail to see the change in him: it was attributed to his
health. With his family he was less guarded: and they saw at once that
he was concealing some serious trouble. They hardly knew him. Sometimes
he would burst into a room and ransack a desk, flinging all the papers
higgledy-piggledy on to the floor, and flying into a frenzy because he
could not find what he was looking for, or because some one offered to help
him. Then he would stand stock still in the middle of it all, and when they
asked him what he was looking for, he did not know himself. He seemed to
have lost all interest in his family: or he would kiss them with tears in
his eyes. He could not sleep. He could not eat.
Madame Jeannin saw that they were on the eve of a catastrophe: but she had
never taken any part in her husband's affairs, and did not understand them.
She questioned him: he repulsed her brutally: and, hurt in her pride, she
did not persist. But she trembled, without knowing why.
The children could have no suspicion of the impending disaster. Antoinette,
no doubt, was too intelligent not, like her mother, to have a presentiment
of some misfortune: but she was absorbed in the delight of her budding
love: she refused to think of unpleasant things: she persuaded herself that
the clouds would pass--or that it would be time enough to see them when it
was impossible to disregard them.
Of the three, the boy Olivier was perhaps the nearest to understanding
what was going on in his unhappy father's soul. He felt that his father
was suffering, and he suffered with him in secret. But he dared not say
anything: naturally he could do nothing, and he was helpless. And then he,
too, thrust back the thought of sad things, the nature of which he could
not grasp: like his mother and sister, he was superstitiously inclined to
believe that perhaps misfortune, the approach of which he did not wish to
see, would not come. Those poor wretches who feel the imminence of danger
do readily play the ostrich: they hide their heads behind a stone, and
pretend that Misfortune will not see them.
* * * * *
Disturbing rumors began to fly. It was said that the bank's credit was
impaired. In vain did the banker assure his clients that it was perfectly
all right, on one pretext or another the more suspicious of them demanded
their money. M. Jeannin felt that he was lost: he defended himself
desperately, assuming a tone of indignation, and complaining loftily and
bitterly of their suspicions of himself: he even went so far as to be
violent and angry with some of his old clients, but that only let him down
finally. Demands for payment came in a rush. On his beam-ends, at bay, he
completely lost his head. He went away for a few days to gamble with his
last few banknotes at a neighboring watering-place, was cleaned out in a
quarter of an hour, and returned home. His sudden departure set the little
town by the ears, and it was said that he had cleared out: and Madame
Jeannin had had great difficulty in coping with the wild, anxious inquiries
of the people: she begged them to be patient, and swore that her husband
would return. They did not believe her, although they would have been only
too glad to do so. And so, when it was known that he had returned, there
was a general sigh of relief: there were many who almost believed that
their fears had been baseless, and that the Jeannins were much too shrewd
not to get out of a hole by admitting that they had fallen into it. The
banker's attitude confirmed that impression. Now that he no longer had any
doubt as to what he must do, he seemed to be weary, but quite calm. He
chatted quietly to a few friends whom he met in the station road on his way
home, talking about the drought and the country not having had any water
for weeks, and the superb condition of the vines, and the fall of the
Ministry, announced in the evening papers.
When he reached home he pretended not to notice his wife's excitement, who
had run to meet him when she heard him come in, and told him volubly and
confusedly what had happened during his absence. She scanned his features
to try and see whether he had succeeded in averting the unknown danger:
but, from pride, she did not ask him anything: she was waiting for him to
speak first. But he did not say a word about the thing that was tormenting
them both. He silently disregarded her desire to confide in him, and to get
him to confide in her. He spoke of the heat, and of how tired he was, and
complained of a racking headache: and they sat down to dinner as usual.
He talked little, and was dull, lost in thought, and his brows were knit:
he drummed with his fingers on the table: he forced himself to eat, knowing
that they were watching him, and looked with vague, unseeing eyes at his
children, who were intimidated by the silence, and at his wife, who sat
stiffly nursing her injured vanity, and, without looking at him, marking
his every movement. Towards the end of dinner he seemed to wake up: he
tried to talk to Antoinette and Olivier, and asked them what they had been
doing during his absence: but he did not listen to their replies, and
heard only the sound of their voices: and although he was staring at them,
his gaze was elsewhere. Olivier felt it: he stopped in the middle of his
prattle, and had no desire to go on. But, after a moment's embarrassment,
Antoinette recovered her gaiety: she chattered merrily, like a magpie, laid
her head on her father's shoulder, or tugged his sleeve to make him listen
to what she was saying. M. Jeannin said nothing: his eyes wandered from
Antoinette to Olivier, and the crease in his forehead grew deeper and
deeper. In the middle of one of his daughter's stories he could bear it no
longer, and got up and went and looked out of the window to conceal his
emotion. The children folded their napkins, and got up too. Madame Jeannin
told them to go and play in the garden: in a moment or two they could be
heard chasing each other down the paths and screaming. Madame Jeannin
looked at her husband, whose back was turned towards her, and she walked
round the table as though to arrange something. Suddenly she went up to
him, and, in a voice hushed by her fear of being overheard by the servants
and by the agony that was in her, she said:
"Tell me, Antoine, what is the matter? There is something the matter ...
You are hiding something ... Has something dreadful happened? Are you ill?"
But once more M. Jeannin put her off, and shrugged his shoulders, and said
"No! No, I tell you! Let me be!"
She was angry, and went away: in her fury, she declared that, no matter
what happened to her husband, she would not bother about it any more.
M. Jeannin went down into the garden. Antoinette was still larking about,
and tugging at her brother to make him run. But the boy declared suddenly
that he was not going to play any more: and he leaned against the wall of
the terrace a few yards away from his father. Antoinette tried to go on
teasing him: but he drove her away and sulked: then she called him names:
and when she found she could get no more fun out of him, she went in and
began to play the piano.
M. Jeannin and Olivier were left alone.
"What's the matter with you, boy? Why won't you play?" asked the father
"I'm tired, father."
"Well, let us sit here on this seat for a little."
They sat down. It was a lovely September night. A dark, clear sky.
The sweet scent of the petunias was mingled with the stale and rather
unwholesome smell of the canal sleeping darkly below the terrace wall.
Great moths, pale and sphinx-like, fluttered about the flowers, with a
little whirring sound. The even voices of the neighbors sitting at their
doors on the other side of the canal rang through the silent air. In the
house Antoinette was playing a florid Italian cavatina. M. Jeannin held
Olivier's hand in his. He was smoking. Through the darkness behind which
his father's face was slowly disappearing the boy could see the red glow of
the pipe, which gleamed, died away, gleamed again, and finally went out.
Neither spoke. Then Olivier asked the names of the stars. M. Jeannin, like
almost all men of his class, knew nothing of the things of Nature, and
could not tell him the names of any save the great constellations, which
are known to everyone: but he pretended that the boy was asking their
names, and told him. Olivier made no objection: it always pleased him to
hear their beautiful mysterious names, and to repeat them in a whisper.
Besides, he was not so much wanting to know their names as instinctively to
come closer to his father. They said nothing more. Olivier looked at the
stars, with his head thrown back and his mouth open: he was lost in drowsy
thoughts: he could feel through all his veins the warmth of his father's
hand. Suddenly the hand began to tremble. That seemed funny to Olivier, and
he laughed and said sleepily:
"Oh, how your hand is trembling, father!"
M. Jeannin removed his hand.
After a moment Olivier, still busy with his own thoughts, said:
"Are you tired, too, father?"
"Yes, my boy."
The boy replied affectionately:
"You must not tire yourself out so much, father."
M. Jeannin drew Olivier towards him, and held him to his breast and
"My poor boy!..."
But already Olivier's thoughts had flown off on another tack. The church
clock chimed eight o'clock. He broke away, and said:
"I'm going to read."
On Thursdays he was allowed to read for an hour after dinner, until
bedtime: it was his greatest joy: and nothing in the world could induce him
to sacrifice a minute of it.
M. Jeannin let him go. He walked up and down the terrace for a little in
the dark. Then he, too, went in.
In the room his wife and the two children were sitting round the lamp.
Antoinette was sewing a ribbon on to a blouse, talking and humming the
while, to Olivier's obvious discomfort, for he was stopping his ears with
his fists so as not to hear, while he pored over his book with knitted
brows, and his elbows on the table. Madame Jeannin was mending stockings
and talking to the old nurse, who was standing by her side and giving an
account of her day's expenditure, and seizing the opportunity for a little
gossip: she always had some amusing tale to tell in her extraordinary
lingo, which used to make them roar with laughter, while Antoinette would
try to imitate her. M. Jeannin watched them silently. No one noticed him.
He wavered for a moment, sat down, took up a book, opened it at random,
shut it again, got up: he could not sit still. He lit a candle and said
good-night. He went up to the children and kissed them fondly: they
returned his kiss absently without looking up at him,--Antoinette being
absorbed in her work, and Olivier in his book. Olivier did not even
take his hands from his ears, and grunted "Good-night," and went on
reading:--(when he was reading even if one of his family had fallen into
the fire, he would not have looked up).--M. Jeannin left the room. He
lingered in the next room, for a moment. His wife came out soon, the old
nurse having gone to arrange the linen-cupboard. She pretended not to see
him. He hesitated, then came up to her, and said:
"I beg your pardon. I was rather rude just now."
She longed to say to him:
"My dear, my dear, that is nothing: but, tell me, what is the matter with
you? Tell me, what is hurting you so?"
But she jumped at the opportunity of taking her revenge, and said:
"Let me be! You have been behaving odiously. You treat me worse than you
would a servant."
And she went on in that strain, setting forth all her grievances volubly,
He raised his hands wearily, smiled bitterly, and left her.
* * * * *
No one heard the report of the revolver. Only, next day, when it was known
what had happened, a few of the neighbors remembered that, in the middle of
the night, when the streets were quiet, they had noticed a sharp noise like
the cracking of a whip. They did not pay any attention to it. The silence
of the night fell once more upon the town, wrapping both living and dead
about with its mystery.
Madame Jeannin was asleep, but woke up an hour or two later. Not seeing her
husband by her side she got up and went anxiously through all the rooms,
and downstairs to the offices of the bank, which were in an annex of the
house: and there, sitting in his chair in his office, she found M. Jeannin
huddled forward on his desk in a pool of blood, which was still dripping
down on to the floor. She gave a scream, dropped her candle, and fainted.
She was heard in the house. The servants came running, picked her up, took
care of her, and laid the body of M. Jeannin on a bed. The door of the
children's room was locked. Antoinette was sleeping happily. Olivier heard
the sound of voices and footsteps: he wanted to go and see what it was all
about: but he was afraid of waking his sister, and presently he went to
Next morning the news was all over the town before they knew anything.
Their old nurse came sobbing and told them. Their mother was incapable of
thinking of anything: her condition was critical. The two children were
left alone in the presence of death. At first they were more fearful than
sorrowful. And they were not allowed to weep in peace. The cruel legal
formalities were begun the first thing in the morning. Antoinette hid
away in her room, and with all the force of her youthful egoism clung
to the only idea which could help her to thrust back the horror of the
overwhelming reality: the thought of her lover: all day long she waited for
him to come. Never had he been more ardent than the last time she had seen
him, and she had no doubt that, as soon as he heard of the catastrophe, he
would hasten to share her grief.--But nobody came, or wrote, or gave one
sign of sympathy. As soon as the news of the suicide was out, people who
had intrusted their money to the banker rushed to the Jeannins' house,
forced their way in, and, with merciless cruelty, stormed and screamed at
the widow and the two children.
In a few days they were faced with their utter ruin: the loss of a dear
one, the loss of their fortune, their position, their public esteem, and
the desertion of their friends. A total wreck. Nothing was left to provide
for them. They had all three an uncompromising feeling for moral purity,
which made their suffering all the greater from the dishonor of which they
were innocent. Of the three Antoinette was the most distraught by their
sorrow, because she had never really known suffering. Madame Jeannin
and Olivier, though they were racked by it, were more inured to it.
Instinctively pessimistic, they were overwhelmed but not surprised. The
idea of death had always been a refuge to them, as it was now, more than
ever: they longed for death. It is pitiful to be so resigned, but not so
terrible as the revolt of a young creature, confident and happy, loving
every moment of her life, who suddenly finds herself face to face with such
unfathomable, irremediable sorrow, and death which is horrible to her....
Antoinette discovered the ugliness of the world in a flash. Her eyes were
opened: she saw life and human beings as they are: she judged her father,
her mother, and her brother. While Olivier and Madame Jeannin wept
together, in her grief she drew into herself. Desperately she pondered the
past, the present, and the future: and she saw that there was nothing left
for her, no hope, nothing to support her: she could count on no one.
The funeral took place, grimly, shamefully. The Church refused to receive
the body of the suicide. The widow and orphans were deserted by the
cowardice of their former friends. One or two of them came for a moment:
and their embarrassment was even harder to bear than the absence of the
rest. They seemed to make a favor of it, and their silence was big with
reproach and pitying contempt. It was even worse with their relations:
not only did they receive no single word of sympathy, but they were
visited with bitter reproaches. The banker's suicide, far from removing
ill-feeling, seemed to be hardly less criminal than his failure.
Respectable people cannot forgive those who kill themselves. It seems to
them monstrous that a man should prefer death to life with dishonor: and
they would fain call down all the rigor of the law on him who seems to say:
"There is no misery so great as that of living with you."
The greatest cowards are not the least ready to accuse him of cowardice.
And when, in addition, the suicide, by ending his life, touches their
interests and their revenge, they lose all control.--Not for one moment did
they think of all that the wretched Jeannin must have suffered to come to
it. They would have had him suffer a thousand times more. And as he had
escaped them, they transferred their fury to his family. They did not admit
it to themselves: for they knew they were unjust. But they did it all the
same, for they needed a victim.
Madame Jeannin, who seemed to be able to do nothing but weep and moan,
recovered her energy when her husband was attacked. She discovered then how
much she had loved him: and she and her two children, who had no idea what
would become of them in the future, all agreed to renounce their claim to
her dowry, and to their own personal estate, in order, as far as possible,
to meet M. Jeannin's debts. And, since it had become impossible for them to
stay in the little town, they decided to go to Paris.
* * * * *
Their departure was something in the nature of a flight.
On the evening of the day before,--(a melancholy evening towards the end
of September: the fields were disappearing behind the white veil of mist,
out of which, as they walked along the road, on either side the fantastic
shapes of the dripping, shivering bushes started forth, looking like the
plants in an aquarium),--they went together to say farewell to the grave
where he lay. They all three knelt on the narrow curbstone which surrounded
the freshly turned patch of earth. They wept in silence; Olivier sobbed.
Madame Jeannin mopped her eyes mournfully. She augmented her grief and
tortured herself by saying to herself over and over again the words she had
spoken to her husband the last time she had seen him alive. Olivier thought
of that last conversation on the seat on the terrace. Antoinette wondered
dreamily what would become of them. None of them ever dreamed of
reproaching the wretched man who had dragged them down in his own ruin. But
"Ah! dear father, how we shall suffer!"
The mist grew more dense, the cold damp pierced through to their bones. But
Madame Jeannin could not bring herself to go. Antoinette saw that Olivier
was shivering and she said to her mother:
"I am cold."
They got up. Just as they were going, Madame Jeannin turned once more
towards the grave, gazed at it for the last time, and said:
"My dear, my dear!"
They left the cemetery as night was falling. Antoinette held Olivier's icy
hand in hers.
They went back to the old house. It was their last night under the
roof-tree where they had always slept, where their lives and the lives of
their parents had been lived--the walls, the hearth, the little patch of
earth were so indissolubly linked with the family's joys and sorrows, as
almost themselves to be part of the family, part of their life, which they
could only leave to die.
Their boxes were packed. They were to take the first train next day before
the shops were opened: they wanted to escape their neighbors' curiosity and
malicious remarks.--They longed to cling to each other and stay together:
but they went instinctively to their rooms and stayed there: there they
remained standing, never moving, not even taking off their hats and cloaks,
touching the walls, the furniture, all the things they were going to leave,
pressing their faces against the window-panes, trying to take away with
them in memory the contact of the things they loved. At last they made an
effort to shake free from the absorption of their sorrowful thoughts and
met in Madame Jeannin's room,--the family room, with a great recess at the
back, where, in old days, they always used to foregather in the evening,
after dinner, when there were no visitors. In old days!... How far off they
seemed now!--They sat silently round the meager fire: then they all knelt
by the bed and said their prayers: and they went to bed very early, for
they had to be up before dawn. But it was long before they slept.
About four o'clock in the morning Madame Jeannin, who had looked at her
watch every hour or so to see whether it was not time to get ready, lit her
candle and got up. Antoinette, who had hardly slept at all, heard her and
got up too. Olivier was fast asleep. Madame Jeannin gazed at him tenderly
and could not bring herself to wake him. She stole away on tiptoe and said
"Don't make any noise: let the poor boy enjoy his last moments here!"
The two women dressed and finished their packing. About the house hovered
the profound silence of the cold night, such a night as makes all living
things, men and beasts, cower away for warmth into the depths of sleep.
Antoinette's teeth were chattering: she was frozen body and soul.
The front door creaked upon the frozen air. The old nurse, who had the key
of the house, came for the last time to serve her employers. She was short
and fat, short-winded, and slow-moving from her portliness, but she was
remarkably active for her age: she appeared with her jolly face muffled
up, and her nose was red, and her eyes were wet with tears. She was
heart-broken when she saw that Madame Jeannin had got up without waiting
for her, and had herself lit the kitchen fire.--Olivier woke up as she came
in. His first impulse was to close his eyes, turn over, and go to sleep
again. Antoinette came and laid her hand gently on her brother's shoulder,
and she said in a low voice:
"Olivier, dear, it is time to get up."
He sighed, opened his eyes, saw his sister's face leaning over him: she
smiled sadly and caressed his face with her hand. She said:
He got up.
They crept out of the house, noiselessly, like thieves. They all had
parcels in their hands. The old nurse went in front of them trundling their
boxes in a wheelbarrow. They left behind almost all their possessions, and
took away, so to speak, only what they had on their backs and a change
of clothes. A few things for remembrance were to be sent after them by
goods-train: a few books, portraits, the old grandfather's clock, whose
tick-tock seemed to them to be the beating of their hearts.--The air was
keen. No one was stirring in the town: the shutters were closed and the
streets empty. They said nothing: only the old servant spoke. Madame
Jeannin was striving to fix in her memory all the images which told her of
all her past life.
At the station, out of vanity, Madame Jeannin took second-class tickets,
although she had vowed to travel third: but she had not the courage to face
the humiliation in the presence of the railway clerks who knew her. She
hurried into an empty compartment with her two children and shut the door.
Hiding behind the curtains they trembled lest they should see any one they
knew. But no one appeared: the town was hardly awake by the time they
left: the train was empty: there were only a few peasants traveling by
it, and some oxen, who hung their heads out of their trucks and bellowed
mournfully. After a long wait the engine gave a slow whistle, and the train
moved on through the mist. The fugitives drew the curtains and pressed
their faces against the windows to take a last long look at the little
town, with its Gothic tower just appearing through the mist, and the hill
covered with stubby fields, and the meadows white and steaming with the
frost; already it was a distant dream-landscape, fading out of existence.
And when the train turned a bend and passed into a cutting, and they could
no longer see it, and were sure there was no one to see them, they gave way
to their emotion. With her handkerchief pressed to her lips Madame Jeannin
sobbed. Olivier flung himself into her arms and with his head on her knees
he covered her hands with tears and kisses. Antoinette sat at the other end
of the compartment and looked out of the window and wept in silence. They
did not all weep for the same reason. Madame Jeannin and Olivier were
thinking only of what they had left behind them. Antoinette was thinking
rather of what they were going to meet: she was angry with herself: she,
too, would gladly have been absorbed in her memories....--She was right to
think of the future: she had a truer vision of the world than her mother
and brother. They were weaving dreams about Paris. Antoinette herself had
little notion of what awaited them there. They had never been there. Madame
Jeannin imagined that, though their position would be sad enough, there
would be no reason for anxiety. She had a sister in Paris, the wife of a
wealthy magistrate: and she counted on her assistance. She was convinced
also that with the education her children had received and their natural
gifts, which, like all mothers, she overestimated, they would have no
difficulty in earning an honest living.
* * * * *
Their first impressions were gloomy enough. As they left the station they
were bewildered by the jostling crowd of people in the luggage-room and the
confused uproar of the carriages outside. It was raining. They could not
find a cab, and had to walk a long way with their arms aching with their
heavy parcels, so that they had to stop every now and then in the middle
of the street at the risk of being run over or splashed by the carriages.
They could not make a single driver pay any attention to them. At last
they managed to stop a man who was driving an old and disgustingly dirty
barouche. As they were handing in the parcels they let a bundle of rugs
fall into the mud. The porter who carried the trunk and the cabman
traded on their ignorance, and made them pay double. Madame Jeannin gave
the address of one of those second-rate expensive hotels patronized by
provincials who go on going to them, in spite of their discomfort, because
their grandfathers went to them thirty years ago. They were fleeced there.
They were told that the hotel was full, and they were accommodated with one
small room for which they were charged the price of three. For dinner they
tried to economize by avoiding the table d'hote: they ordered a modest
meal, which cost them just as much and left them famishing. Their illusions
concerning Paris had come toppling down as soon as they arrived. And,
during that first night in the hotel, when they were squeezed into one
little, ill-ventilated room, they could not sleep: they were hot and cold
by turns, and could not breathe, and started at every footstep in the
corridor, and the banging of the doors, and the furious ringing of the
electric bells: and their heads throbbed with the incessant roar of the
carriages and heavy drays: and altogether they felt terrified of the
monstrous city into which they had plunged to their utter bewilderment.
Next day Madame Jeannin went to see her sister, who lived in a luxurious
flat in the _Boulevard Hausmann_. She hoped, though she did not say so,
that they would be invited to stay there until they had found their feet.
The welcome she received was enough to undeceive her. The Poyet-Delormes
were furious at their relative's failure: especially Madame Delorme, who
was afraid that it would be set against her, and might injure her husband's
career, and she thought it shameless of the ruined family to come and
cling to them, and compromise them even more. The magistrate was of the
same opinion: but he was a kindly man: he would have been more inclined
to help, but for his wife's intervention--to which he knuckled under.
Madame Poyet-Delorme received her sister with icy coldness. It cut Madame
Jeannin to the heart: but she swallowed down her pride: she hinted at the
difficulty of her position and the assistance she hoped to receive from the
Poyets. Her sister pretended not to understand, and did not even ask her to
stay to dinner: they were ceremoniously invited to dine at the end of the
week. The invitation did not come from Madame Poyet either, but from the
magistrate, who was a little put out at his wife's treatment of her sister,
and tried to make amends for her curtness: he posed as the good-natured
man: but it was obvious that it did not come easily to him and that he was
really very selfish. The unhappy Jeannins returned to their hotel without
daring to say what they thought of their first visit.
They spent the following days in wandering about Paris, looking for a fiat:
they were worn out with going up stairs, and disheartened by the sight of
the great barracks crammed full of people, and the dirty stairs, and the
dark rooms, that seemed so depressing to them after their own big house in
the country. They grew more and more depressed. And they were always shy
and timid in the streets, and shops, and restaurants, so that they were
cheated at every turn. Everything they asked for cost an exorbitant sum: it
was as though they had the faculty of turning everything they touched into
gold: only, it was they who had to pay out the gold. They were incredibly
simple and absolutely incapable of looking after themselves.
Though there was little left to hope for from Madame Jeannin's sister, the
poor lady wove illusions about the dinner to which they were invited. They
dressed for it with fluttering hearts. They were received as guests, and
not as relations--though nothing more was expended on the dinner than the
ceremonious manner. The children met their cousins, who were almost the
same age as themselves, but they were not much more cordial than their
father and mother. The girl was very smart and coquettish, and spoke to
them with a lisp and a politely superior air, with affectedly honeyed
manners which disconcerted them. The boy was bored by this duty-dinner with
their poor relations: and he was as surly as could be. Madame Poyet-Delorme
sat up stiffly in her chair, and, even when she handed her a dish, seemed
to be reading her sister a lesson. Madame Poyet-Delorme talked trivialities
to keep the conversation from becoming serious. They never got beyond
talking of what they were eating for fear of touching upon any intimate
and dangerous topic. Madame Jeannin made an effort to bring them round to
the subject next her heart: Madame Poyet-Delorme cut her short with some
pointless remark, and she had not the courage to try again.
After dinner she made her daughter play the piano by way of showing off her
talents. The poor girl was embarrassed and unhappy and played execrably.
The Poyets were bored and anxious for her to finish. Madame Poyet exchanged
glances with her daughter, with an ironic curl of her lips: and as the
music went on too long she began to talk to Madame Jeannin about nothing in
particular. At last Antoinette, who had quite lost her place, and saw to
her horror that, instead of going on, she had begun again at the beginning,
and that there was no reason why she should ever stop, broke off suddenly,
and ended with two inaccurate chords and a third which was absolutely
dissonant. Monsieur Poyet said:
And he asked for coffee.
Madame Poyet said that her daughter was taking lessons with Pugno: and the
young lady "who was taking lessons with Pugno" said:
"Charming, my dear...."
And asked where Antoinette had studied.
The conversation dropped. They had exhausted the knick-knacks in the
drawing-room and the dresses of Madame and Mademoiselle Poyet. Madame
Jeannin said to herself:
"I must speak now. I must...."
And she fidgeted. Just as she had pulled herself together to begin, Madame
Poyet mentioned casually, without any attempt at an apology, that they were
very sorry but they had to go out at half-past nine: they had an invitation
which they had been unable to decline. The Jeannins were at a loss, and
got up at once to go. The Poyets made some show of detaining them. But
a quarter of an hour later there was a ring at the door: the footman
announced some friends of the Poyets, neighbors of theirs, who lived in the
flat below. Poyet and his wife exchanged glances, and there were hurried
whisperings with the servants. Poyet stammered some excuse, and hurried
the Jeannins into the next room. (He was trying to hide from his friends
the existence, and the presence in his house, of the compromising family.)
The Jeannins were left alone in a room without a fire. The children were
furious at the affront. Antoinette had tears in her eyes and insisted on
their going. Her mother resisted for a little: but then, after they had
waited for some time, she agreed. They went out. In the hall they were
caught by Poyet, who had been told by a servant, and he muttered excuses:
he pretended that he wanted them to stay: but it was obvious that he was
only eager for them to go. He helped them on with their cloaks, and hurried
them to the door with smiles and handshakes and whispered pleasantries, and
closed the door on them. When they reached their hotel the children burst
into angry tears. Antoinette stamped her foot, and swore that she would
never enter their house again.
Madame Jeannin took a flat on the fourth floor near the _Jardin des
Plantes_. The bedrooms looked on to the filthy walls of a gloomy courtyard:
the dining-room and the drawing-room--(for Madame Jeannin insisted on
having a drawing-room)--on to a busy street. All day long steam-trams went
by and hearses crawling along to the Ivry Cemetery. Filthy Italians, with a
horde of children, loafed about on the seats, or spent their time in shrill
argument. The noise made it impossible to have the windows open: and in the
evening, on their way home, they had to force their way through crowds of
bustling, evil-smelling people, cross the thronged and muddy streets, pass
a horrible pothouse, that was on the ground floor of the next house, in
the door of which there were always fat, frowsy women with yellow hair and
painted faces, eying the passers-by.
Their small supply of money soon gave out. Every evening with sinking
hearts they took stock of the widening hole in their purse. They tried
to stint themselves: but they did not know how to set about it: that is
a science which can only be learned by years of experimenting, unless it
has been practised from childhood. Those who are not naturally economical
merely waste their time in trying to be so: as soon as a fresh opportunity