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Émile Zola.

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centre of a group with an affectation of scoffing unconcern; nevertheless
nervous twitches made his nose pucker and distorted his mouth, while the
whole of his handsome face was becoming moist with fear. And even as
Massot had said, there really was only Fonsegue who showed composure and
bravery, ever the same with his restless little figure, and his eyes
beaming with wit, though at times they were just faintly clouded by a
shadow of uneasiness.

Pierre had risen to renew his request; but Fonsegue forestalled him,
vivaciously exclaiming: "No, no, Monsieur l'Abbe, I repeat that I cannot
take on myself such an infraction of our rules. There was an inquiry, and
a decision was arrived at. How would you have me over-rule it?"

"Monsieur," said the priest, in a tone of deep grief, "it is a question
of an old man who is hungry and cold, and in danger of death if he be not
succoured."

With a despairing gesture, the director of "Le Globe" seemed to take the
very walls as witnesses of his powerlessness. No doubt he feared some
nasty affair for his newspaper, in which he had abused the Invalids of
Labour enterprise as an electoral weapon. Perhaps, too, the secret terror
into which the sitting of the Chamber had just thrown him was hardening
his heart. "I can do nothing," he repeated. "But naturally I don't ask
better than to have my hands forced by the ladies of the Committee. You
already have the support of the Baroness Duvillard, secure that of some
others."

Pierre, who was determined to fight on to the very end, saw in this
suggestion a supreme chance. "I know the Countess de Quinsac," he said,
"I can go to see her at once."

"Quite so! an excellent idea, the Countess de Quinsac! Take a cab and go
to see the Princess de Harn as well. She bestirs herself a great deal,
and is becoming very influential. Secure the approval of these ladies, go
back to the Baroness's at seven, get a letter from her to cover me, and
then call on me at the office of my paper. That done, your man shall
sleep at the Asylum at nine o'clock!"

He evinced in speaking a kind of joyous good nature, as though he no
longer doubted of success now that he ran no risk of compromising
himself. And great hope again came back to the priest: "Ah! thank you,
monsieur," he said; "it is a work of salvation that you will accomplish."

"But you surely know that I ask nothing better. Ah! if we could only cure
misery, prevent hunger and thirst by a mere word. However, make haste,
you have not a minute to lose."

They shook hands, and Pierre at once tried to get out of the throng.
This, however, was no easy task, for the various groups had grown larger
as all the anger and anguish, roused by the recent debate, ebbed back
there amid a confused tumult. It was as when a stone, cast into a pool,
stirs the ooze below, and causes hidden, rotting things to rise once more
to the surface. And Pierre had to bring his elbows into play and force a
passage athwart the throng, betwixt the shivering cowardice of some, the
insolent audacity of others, and the smirchings which sullied the greater
number, given the contagion which inevitably prevailed. However, he
carried away a fresh hope, and it seemed to him that if he should save a
life, make but one man happy that day, it would be like a first
instalment of redemption, a sign that a little forgiveness would be
extended to the many follies and errors of that egotistical and
all-devouring political world.

On reaching the vestibule a final incident detained him for a moment
longer. Some commotion prevailed there following upon a quarrel between a
man and an usher, the latter of whom had prevented the former from
entering on finding that the admission ticket which he tendered was an
old one, with its original date scratched out. The man, very rough at the
outset, had then refrained from insisting, as if indeed sudden timidity
had come upon him. And in this ill-dressed fellow Pierre was astonished
to recognise Salvat, the journeyman engineer, whom he had seen going off
in search of work that same morning. This time it was certainly he, tall,
thin and ravaged, with dreamy yet flaming eyes, which set his pale
starveling's face aglow. He no longer carried his tool-bag; his ragged
jacket was buttoned up and distended on the left side by something that
he carried in a pocket, doubtless some hunk of bread. And on being
repulsed by the ushers, he walked away, taking the Concorde bridge,
slowly, as if chancewise, like a man who knows not whither he is going.



IV

SOCIAL SIDELIGHTS

IN her old faded drawing-room - a Louis Seize _salon_ with grey
woodwork - the Countess de Quinsac sat near the chimney-piece in her
accustomed place. She was singularly like her son, with a long and noble
face, her chin somewhat stern, but her eyes still beautiful beneath her
fine snowy hair, which was arranged in the antiquated style of her youth.
And whatever her haughty coldness, she knew how to be amiable, with
perfect, kindly graciousness.

Slightly waving her hand after a long silence, she resumed, addressing
herself to the Marquis de Morigny, who sat on the other side of the
chimney, where for long years he had always taken the same armchair. "Ah!
you are right, my friend, Providence has left us here forgotten, in a
most abominable epoch."

"Yes, we passed by the side of happiness and missed it," the Marquis
slowly replied, "and it was your fault, and doubtless mine as well."

Smiling sadly, she stopped him with another wave of her hand. And the
silence fell once more; not a sound from the streets reached that gloomy
ground floor at the rear of the courtyard of an old mansion in the Rue
St. Dominique, almost at the corner of the Rue de Bourgogne.

The Marquis was an old man of seventy-five, nine years older than the
Countess. Short and thin though he was, he none the less had a
distinguished air, with his clean-shaven face, furrowed by deep,
aristocratic wrinkles. He belonged to one of the most ancient families of
France, and remained one of the last hopeless Legitimists, of very pure
and lofty views, zealously keeping his faith to the dead monarchy amidst
the downfall of everything. His fortune, still estimated at several
millions of francs, remained, as it were, in a state of stagnation,
through his refusal to invest it in any of the enterprises of the
century. It was known that in all discretion he had loved the Countess,
even when M. de Quinsac was alive, and had, moreover, offered marriage
after the latter's death, at the time when the widow had sought a refuge
on that damp ground floor with merely an income of some 15,000 francs,
saved with great difficulty from the wreck of the family fortune. But
she, who adored her son Gerard, then in his tenth year, and of delicate
health, had sacrificed everything to the boy from a kind of maternal
chasteness and a superstitious fear that she might lose him should she
set another affection and another duty in her life. And the Marquis,
while bowing to her decision, had continued to worship her with his whole
soul, ever paying his court as on the first evening when he had seen her,
still gallant and faithful after a quarter of a century had passed. There
had never been anything between them, not even the exchange of a kiss.

Seeing how sad she looked, he feared that he might have displeased her,
and so he asked: "I should have liked to render you happy, but I didn't
know how, and the fault can certainly only rest with me. Is Gerard giving
you any cause for anxiety?"

She shook her head, and then replied: "As long as things remain as they
are we cannot complain of them, my friend, since we accepted them."

She referred to her son's culpable connection with Baroness Duvillard.
She had ever shown much weakness with regard to that son whom she had had
so much trouble to rear, for she alone knew what exhaustion, what racial
collapse was hidden behind his proud bearing. She tolerated his idleness,
the apathetic disgust which, man of pleasure that he was, had turned him
from the profession of diplomacy as from that of arms. How many times had
she not repaired his acts of folly and paid his petty debts, keeping
silent concerning them, and refusing all pecuniary help from the Marquis,
who no longer dared offer his millions, so stubbornly intent she was on
living upon the remnants of her own fortune. And thus she had ended by
closing her eyes to her son's scandalous love intrigue, divining in some
measure how things had happened, through self-abandonment and lack of
conscience - the man weak, unable to resume possession of himself, and the
woman holding and retaining him. The Marquis, however, strangely enough,
had only forgiven the intrigue on the day when Eve had allowed herself to
be converted.

"You know, my friend, how good-natured Gerard is," the Countess resumed.
"In that lie both his strength and weakness. How would you have me scold
him when he weeps over it all with me? He will tire of that woman."

M. de Morigny wagged his head. "She is still very beautiful," said he.
"And then there's the daughter. It would be graver still if he were to
marry her - "

"But the daughter's infirm?"

"Yes, and you know what would be said: A Quinsac marrying a monster for
the sake of her millions."

This was their mutual terror. They knew everything that went on at the
Duvillards, the affectionate friendship of the uncomely Camille and the
handsome Gerard, the seeming idyll beneath which lurked the most awful of
dramas. And they protested with all their indignation. "Oh! that, no, no,
never!" the Countess declared. "My son in that family, no, I will never
consent to it."

Just at that moment General de Bozonnet entered. He was much attached to
his sister and came to keep her company on the days when she received,
for the old circle had gradually dwindled down till now only a few
faithful ones ventured into that grey gloomy _salon_, where one might
have fancied oneself at thousands of leagues from present-day Paris. And
forthwith, in order to enliven the room, he related that he had been to
_dejeuner_ at the Duvillards, and named the guests, Gerard among them. He
knew that he pleased his sister by going to the banker's house whence he
brought her news, a house, too, which he cleansed in some degree by
conferring on it the great honour of his presence. And he himself in no
wise felt bored there, for he had long been gained over to the century
and showed himself of a very accommodating disposition in everything that
did not pertain to military art.

"That poor little Camille worships Gerard," said he; "she was devouring
him with her eyes at table."

But M. de Morigny gravely intervened: "There lies the danger, a marriage
would be absolutely monstrous from every point of view."

The General seemed astonished: "Why, pray? She isn't beautiful, but it's
not only the beauties who marry! And there are her millions. However, our
dear child would only have to put them to a good use. True, there is also
the mother; but, _mon Dieu_! such things are so common nowadays in Paris
society."

This revolted the Marquis, who made a gesture of utter disgust. What was
the use of discussion when all collapsed? How could one answer a
Bozonnet, the last surviving representative of such an illustrious
family, when he reached such a point as to excuse the infamous morals
that prevailed under the Republic; after denying his king, too, and
serving the Empire, faithfully and passionately attaching himself to the
fortunes and memory of Caesar? However, the Countess also became
indignant: "Oh! what are you saying, brother? I will never authorize such
a scandal, I swore so only just now."

"Don't swear, sister," exclaimed the General; "for my part I should like
to see our Gerard happy. That's all. And one must admit that he's not
good for much. I can understand that he didn't go into the Army, for that
profession is done for. But I do not so well understand why he did not
enter the diplomatic profession, or accept some other occupation. It is
very fine, no doubt, to run down the present times and declare that a man
of our sphere cannot possibly do any clean work in them. But, as a matter
of fact, it is only idle fellows who still say that. And Gerard has but
one excuse, his lack of aptitude, will and strength."

Tears had risen to the mother's eyes. She even trembled, well knowing how
deceitful were appearances: a mere chill might carry her son off, however
tall and strong he might look. And was he not indeed a symbol of that
old-time aristocracy, still so lofty and proud in appearance, though at
bottom it is but dust?

"Well," continued the General, "he's thirty-six now; he's constantly
hanging on your hands, and he must make an end of it all."

However, the Countess silenced him and turned to the Marquis: "Let us put
our confidence in God, my friend," said she. "He cannot but come to my
help, for I have never willingly offended Him."

"Never!" replied the Marquis, who in that one word set an expression of
all his grief, all his affection and worship for that woman whom he had
adored for so many years.

But another faithful friend came in and the conversation changed. M. de
Larombiere, Vice-President of the Appeal Court, was an old man of
seventy-five, thin, bald and clean shaven but for a pair of little white
whiskers. And his grey eyes, compressed mouth and square and obstinate
chin lent an expression of great austerity to his long face. The grief of
his life was that, being afflicted with a somewhat childish lisp, he had
never been able to make his full merits known when a public prosecutor,
for he esteemed himself to be a great orator. And this secret worry
rendered him morose. In him appeared an incarnation of that old royalist
France which sulked and only served the Republic against its heart, that
old stern magistracy which closed itself to all evolution, to all new
views of things and beings. Of petty "gown" nobility, originally a
Legitimist but now supporting Orleanism, he believed himself to be the
one man of wisdom and logic in that _salon_, where he was very proud to
meet the Marquis.

They talked of the last events; but with them political conversation was
soon exhausted, amounting as it did to a mere bitter condemnation of men
and occurrences, for all three were of one mind as to the abominations of
the Republican _regime_. They themselves, however, were only ruins, the
remnants of the old parties now all but utterly powerless. The Marquis
for his part soared on high, yielding in nothing, ever faithful to the
dead past; he was one of the last representatives of that lofty obstinate
_noblesse_ which dies when it finds itself without an effort to escape
its fate. The judge, who at least had a pretender living, relied on a
miracle, and demonstrated the necessity for one if France were not to
sink into the depths of misfortune and completely disappear. And as for
the General, all that he regretted of the two Empires was their great
wars; he left the faint hope of a Bonapartist restoration on one side to
declare that by not contenting itself with the Imperial military system,
and by substituting thereto obligatory service, the nation in arms, the
Republic had killed both warfare and the country.

When the Countess's one man-servant came to ask her if she would consent
to receive Abbe Froment she seemed somewhat surprised. "What can he want
of me? Show him in," she said.

She was very pious, and having met Pierre in connection with various
charitable enterprises, she had been touched by his zeal as well as by
the saintly reputation which he owed to his Neuilly parishioners.

He, absorbed by his fever, felt intimidated directly he crossed the
threshold. He could at first distinguish nothing, but fancied he was
entering some place of mourning, a shadowy spot where human forms seemed
to melt away, and voices were never raised above a whisper. Then, on
perceiving the persons present, he felt yet more out of his element, for
they seemed so sad, so far removed from the world whence he had just
come, and whither he was about to return. And when the Countess had made
him sit down beside her in front of the chimney-piece, it was in a low
voice that he told her the lamentable story of Laveuve, and asked her
support to secure the man's admittance to the Asylum for the Invalids of
Labour.

"Ah! yes," said she, "that enterprise which my son wished me to belong
to. But, Monsieur l'Abbe, I have never once attended the Committee
meetings. So how could I intervene, having assuredly no influence
whatever?"

Again had the figures of Eve and Gerard arisen before her, for it was at
this asylum that the pair had first met. And influenced by her sorrowful
maternal love she was already weakening, although it was regretfully that
she had lent her name to one of those noisy charitable enterprises, which
people abused to further their selfish interests in a manner she
condemned.

"But, madame," Pierre insisted, "it is a question of a poor starving old
man. I implore you to be compassionate."

Although the priest had spoken in a low voice the General drew near.
"It's for your old revolutionary that you are running about, is it not,"
said he. "Didn't you succeed with the manager, then? The fact is that
it's difficult to feel any pity for fellows who, if they were the
masters, would, as they themselves say, sweep us all away."

M. de Larombiere jerked his chin approvingly. For some time past he had
been haunted by the Anarchist peril. But Pierre, distressed and
quivering, again began to plead his cause. He spoke of all the frightful
misery, the homes where there was no food, the women and children
shivering with cold, and the fathers scouring muddy, wintry Paris in
search of a bit of bread. All that he asked for was a line on a visiting
card, a kindly word from the Countess, which he would at once carry to
Baroness Duvillard to prevail on her to set the regulations aside. And
his words fell one by one, tremulous with stifled tears, in that mournful
_salon_, like sounds from afar, dying away in a dead world where there
was no echo left.

Madame de Quinsac turned towards M. de Morigny, but he seemed to take no
interest in it all. He was gazing fixedly at the fire, with the haughty
air of a stranger who was indifferent to the things and beings in whose
midst an error of time compelled him to live. But feeling that the glance
of the woman he worshipped was fixed upon him he raised his head; and
then their eyes met for a moment with an expression of infinite
gentleness, the mournful gentleness of their heroic love.

"_Mon Dieu_!" said she, "I know your merits, Monsieur l'Abbe, and I won't
refuse my help to one of your good works."

Then she went off for a moment, and returned with a card on which she had
written that she supported with all her heart Monsieur l'Abbe Froment in
the steps he was taking. And he thanked her and went off delighted, as if
he carried yet a fresh hope of salvation from that drawing-room where, as
he retired, gloom and silence once more seemed to fall on that old lady
and her last faithful friends gathered around the fire, last relics of a
world that was soon to disappear.

Once outside, Pierre joyfully climbed into his cab again, after giving
the Princess de Harn's address in the Avenue Kleber. If he could also
obtain her approval he would no longer doubt of success. However, there
was such a crush on the Concorde bridge, that the driver had to walk his
horse. And, on the foot-pavement, Pierre again saw Duthil, who, with a
cigar between his lips, was smiling at the crowd, with his amiable
bird-like heedlessness, happy as he felt at finding the pavement dry and
the sky blue on leaving that worrying sitting of the Chamber. Seeing how
gay and triumphant he looked, a sudden inspiration came to the priest,
who said to himself that he ought to win over this young man, whose
report had had such a disastrous effect. As it happened, the cab having
been compelled to stop altogether, the deputy had just recognized him and
was smiling at him.

"Where are you going, Monsieur Duthil?" Pierre asked.

"Close by, in the Champs Elysees."

"I'm going that way, and, as I should much like to speak to you for a
moment, it would be very kind of you to take a seat beside me. I will set
you down wherever you like."

"Willingly, Monsieur l'Abbe. It won't inconvenience you if I finish my
cigar?"

"Oh! not at all."

The cab found its way out of the crush, crossed the Place de la Concorde
and began to ascend the Champs Elysees. And Pierre, reflecting that he
had very few minutes before him, at once attacked Duthil, quite ready for
any effort to convince him. He remembered what a sortie the young deputy
had made against Laveuve at the Baron's; and thus he was astonished to
hear him interrupt and say quite pleasantly, enlivened as he seemed by
the bright sun which was again beginning to shine: "Ah, yes! your old
drunkard! So you didn't settle his business with Fonsegue? And what is it
you want? To have him admitted to-day? Well, you know I don't oppose it?"

"But there's your report."

"My report, oh, my report! But questions change according to the way one
looks at them. And if you are so anxious about your Laveuve I won't
refuse to help you."

Pierre looked at him in astonishment, at bottom extremely well pleased.
And there was no further necessity even for him to speak.

"You didn't take the matter in hand properly," continued Duthil, leaning
forward with a confidential air. "It's the Baron who's the master at
home, for reasons which you may divine, which you may very likely know.
The Baroness does all that he asks without even discussing the point; and
this morning, - instead of starting on a lot of useless visits, you only
had to gain his support, particularly as he seemed to be very well
disposed. And she would then have given way immediately." Duthil began to
laugh. "And so," he continued, "do you know what I'll do? Well, I'll gain
the Baron over to your cause. Yes, I am this moment going to a house
where he is, where one is certain to find him every day at this time."
Then he laughed more loudly. "And perhaps you are not ignorant of it,
Monsieur l'Abbe. When he is there you may be certain he never gives a
refusal. I promise you I'll make him swear that he will compel his wife
to grant your man admission this very evening. Only it will, perhaps, be
rather late."

Then all at once, as if struck by a fresh idea, Duthil went on: "But why
shouldn't you come with me? You secure a line from the Baron, and
thereupon, without losing a minute, you go in search of the Baroness. Ah!
yes, the house embarrasses you a little, I understand it. Would you like
to see only the Baron there? You can wait for him in a little _salon_
downstairs; I will bring him to you."

This proposal made Duthil altogether merry, but Pierre, quite scared,
hesitated at the idea of thus going to Silviane d'Aulnay's. It was hardly
a place for him. However, to achieve his purpose, he would have descended
into the very dwelling of the fiend, and had already done so sometimes
with Abbe Rose, when there was hope of assuaging wretchedness. So he
turned to Duthil and consented to accompany him.

Silviane d'Aulnay's little mansion, a very luxurious one, displaying,
too, so to say, the luxury of a temple, refined but suggestive of
gallantry, stood in the Avenue d'Antin, near the Champs Elysees. The
inmate of this sanctuary, where the orfrays of old dalmaticas glittered
in the mauve reflections from the windows of stained-glass, had just
completed her twenty-fifth year. Short and slim she was, of an adorable,
dark beauty, and all Paris was acquainted with her delicious, virginal
countenance of a gentle oval, her delicate nose, her little mouth, her
candid cheeks and artless chin, above all which she wore her black hair
in thick, heavy bands, which hid her low brow. Her notoriety was due
precisely to her pretty air of astonishment, the infinite purity of her
blue eyes, the whole expression of chaste innocence which she assumed
when it so pleased her, an expression which contrasted powerfully with
her true nature, shameless creature that she really was, of the most
monstrous, confessed, and openly-displayed perversity; such as, in fact,
often spring up from the rotting soil of great cities. Extraordinary
things were related about Silviane's tastes and fancies. Some said that
she was a door-keeper's, others a doctor's, daughter. In any case she had
managed to acquire instruction and manners, for when occasion required


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Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 7 of 10)