Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 14

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That was a long sentence for her.

Whilst the amba.s.sador's guests had elbow-room and to spare, the crowd below got more and more densely packed; it had so far surged hither and thither to the accompaniment of good-natured jokes, banter and _blague_, but suddenly a cry of alarm was raised:--

"_Nom d'un nom_, stand back! _Pour l'amour de Dieu_, don't push; you'll crush the child! The woman is fainting. Keep her head up or she's lost!"

Those are terrible moments when a crowd first realises imminent danger, and the instinct of self-preservation overrides all fellow-feeling, shows no mercy, gives no quarter. Yes, indeed, keep your head up, or you are lost. In the garden above, the festive gathering was suddenly changed into a scene of confusion. The ladies shrieked, and one or two of them swooned in sheer sympathetic terror. Men thundered words of command to the crowd below, that were lost in a sea of noises. At the first indication of danger, Jeanne had darted away like an arrow into the house; Claude was to the front trying, but in vain, to reach the child that was being held up by a pair of strong arms. A few instants more and Jeanne was back, carrying a chair. Not a pin could drop to the ground that crowd covered, but the chair did, and, with its aid, the work of rescue began.

"Get another," she called to Claude, "that one will be broken up directly," and off she was again. Another minute and she appeared at a window overlooking the Rue Boissy d'Anglais, brandis.h.i.+ng the first thing she chanced to lay hands upon--a large Turkish sabre. The shy girl with the red hair, the abject coward, was transformed into a modern Jeanne d'Arc, mowing the air with the curved blade of the Saracens; a curious picture, that arrested the attention of the crowd beneath, at a point some two hundred yards in the rear of the dangerous corner of the Avenue Gabrielle, thus holding in check for a moment the seething ma.s.s of people who were pressing forward, unconscious of the danger to life and limb they were creating.

"En arriere!" she cried. "On s'ecrase la bas! Barrez la rue!" An officer of the Gensdarmerie took in the situation. He backed his horse on the advancing crowd, orders were given to stop the influx from the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore, and a catastrophe was averted.

The story of the timely relief of those besieged garden walls rapidly spread amongst the guests, who were gradually recovering from their fright. The ladies had ceased shrieking, and had completed the elaborate process of swooning, and of being brought round by the polite attentions of the gentlemen; they were now extolling Jeanne's presence of mind.

"My dear," said one old lady, "without you they would have stormed the house, and with my wretched health, I should not have survived it."

"Yes," added her son-in-law, "single-handed she beat the rabble back.

She ought to have the Legion d'Honneur."

"Take me away," Jeanne said to Claude; "anywhere, into the house."

"Do you mind my stopping with you?" asked Claude, but not till they had settled on a many-cus.h.i.+oned divan in the coolest and quietest room of the

"Do stop," she said, "to protect me from the rabble. I might not be able to beat it back single-handed."

Claude thought he had never seen her hair so beautifully untidy before.

"I am sure I said nothing; no, _nothing_. But I can't help fancying she thinks I said _something_, and that's what makes me miserable."

So Claude a.s.sured me as I closely cross-questioned him on the subject of that day's conversation. Something had happened since to make him revert to the many-cus.h.i.+oned divan with uneasiness. He had gone, much against his inclination, on a visit to his uncle's.

"I know it's a guet-apens, a trap," he had said to me. "The old story; he wants to marry me to some money-bag. Anyway, he's too late now; I'm not in the market. For all that I wish I had Jeanne down there to help me beat off the enemy with her Turkish scimitar. Bother matrimony! Why must we always be thinking of it? As if loving and being loved wasn't heavenly enough by itself. And why must we always go a-hunting in so-called society? Don't you think we ought to stick to our Quartier Latin and take a spouse of our own Bohemian type, instead of pottering about in swell salons and falling in love with some fine lady who will expect a fellow to go about disguised as a gentleman for the rest of his natural life?"

Such were his sentiments before he started. Four days afterwards he returned in love with a beautiful woman, and quite disposed to make a gentleman, or even a fool, of himself for her sake.

I happened to know her. Her name was Olga Rabachot. Her father was a Pole, one of those ill-fated n.o.blemen who died for their country, whose estates were sequestrated, and whose fortune went to swell the coffers of the Russian Treasury. The mother and daughter settled in Paris. I suppose they lived in a garret, and gave music lessons, after the style of good Polish refugees; but I really know nothing about it, and probably only derive my impressions from the circ.u.mstance that the mother sang and the daughter played one evening when I was introduced to them at the house of Hittorff, the famous architect of the Place de la Concorde. A short time afterwards it was rumoured that a Monsieur Rabachot, an elderly gentleman who had made a fortune in business, had become much attracted by the charms and graces of the mother, Madame Somethingiska. This proved to be true, but only inasmuch as he saw in her an eligible mother-in-law. We soon heard to our surprise that his hand and his fortune had been accepted by the daughter, the younger _iska_.

The curiously a.s.sorted couple enjoyed but a brief term of matrimonial bliss, or whatever else it may have been. Before a year had gone by, the wealthy manufacturer was suddenly struck down by heart disease, as he stood by the open grave of a friend. The incident made quite a sensation in Paris at the time.

It was the bereaved widow, then, that Claude met at his uncle's. The late husband had been on terms of close friends.h.i.+p with the tanner, and had appointed him one of the executors of his will. But all business connected with this had been settled nearly a twelvemonth ago, and now l'oncle Auguste thought it about time to put his abilities in the matrimonial agency line to the test. So, as Claude had correctly guessed, he had prepared his little guet-apens.

With Claude it was love at first sight--that is, if we may apply the term love to what is begotten of intense admiration for the creature beauties of woman. She had eyes, so it seemed to me at least, that might rest when off duty, but would ever be on the alert where they could be used to advantage. Her mouth, I must say, was most attractive. The lips were carved, curved, and coloured to perfection, and I cannot recollect ever having seen any of their kind better fitted to be met by other lips. Her pallor was interesting, her hair jet black, and her manners fascinating; but for all that I could never have wors.h.i.+pped at her shrine. Not so Claude. He saw everything in her that a man sees when he is struck blind by the G.o.d of love.

As we walked home together, on his return from that first meeting, we talked it all over. When we got home we talked it all over again. First it was daytime; then came the night; then the day broke again, and we were still talking--always on that inexhaustible theme that, since articulate sound was created, has used up more language than all other themes put together.

It must have been thus, I feel confident, that Orestes and Pylades talked by the hour when one of them or both were in love, and so too all the O.'s and P.'s, and, for the matter of that, all the other initials of the alphabet, ranging from the Alpha to the Omega.

At first I was not sympathetically inclined, and put spokes into the wheels that were running away with Claude. After a while I merely tried to apply the brake, lest he should rush down hill too rapidly, but I finally found myself running and rolling along, doing my best to keep pace with him.

The fact is his enthusiasm was catching. He described that woman so vividly that, for the time being, I could not help seeing her as he painted her. To be sure the thousand and one little details that made up our conversation do not bear repet.i.tion. The facts that I elicited were these: At his uncle's bidding Claude came, Claude saw, and Claude was conquered. Was she conquered too? That was a question not easily answered. During the four days they were together she sometimes accepted his attentions very graciously; at other times she was anything but encouraging, and even showed so marked a preference for the uncle that it seemed as if the young widow had preserved a taste for elderly husbands. He, l'oncle Auguste, inclined as he was under ordinary circ.u.mstances to lord it over friend and foe alike, was unmistakably cowed in the presence of the Polish fascinator. She not only showed interest in the tanner's work, but also fearlessly indulged in criticism; this more especially in reference to the ventilation of some of the workshops. That she should have selected this particular subject for her adverse comments rather surprised me, for I had been brought up in the belief that the Poles might ventilate their grievances, but not much else.

The subject led to a rather lively discussion between Madame Rabachot and Claude's uncle, she being of the very advanced opinion that a man, even if he only worked from ten to twelve hours a day in an enclosed s.p.a.ce, was ent.i.tled to a fair amount of pure air, whereas the distinguished head of the concern, who was of the good old school, maintained that in his experience of many years' standing he had always gone by the golden rule that the amount of fresh air provided for the workman should be in exact proportion to the wages he is paid. The fair advocate of man's rights, however, stood her ground so well that the unfortunate employer had to give way, and promise the desired reforms.

This episode made a great impression on Claude, as well it might.

Perhaps, though, he went a little far, when he said she was a n.o.ble creature, the champion of the great cause of suffering humanity, and the like. To be sure the chief factor of her strength was the splendid gift she possessed of using her eyes.

I elicited that even whilst skirmis.h.i.+ng with the uncle she always had at least one eye on the nephew; that one was evidently enough to hold him in subjection, for with it she had condescended to say many pleasant things that she did not deem it desirable to entrust to the indiscretions of the lips. Taking it all in all, I came to the conclusion that she was, to say the least of it, very much interested in Claude, but that, being of a kittenish disposition, she had coquetted with the uncle in the playful way so frequently practised by women when they look sweet upon one man with a view to quickening the pulses of another, whose affections they aspire to secure.

If Claude said he was miserable, it was not so much because it was yet an open question whether the young widow could reciprocate his feelings, but because the image of Jeanne stood between him and his new love. He knew that Jeanne was more than partial to him, and he felt that he had been slowly but surely drawn towards her.

How much or how little had he really shown the interest he took in her was the question that exercised his mind. Had he ever said anything that she could have construed into an acknowledgment of a deeper feeling than that of friends.h.i.+p, anything that would be at least morally binding? No, certainly not in words; but then, to be sure, much can be said without the use of spoken language. Of all the songs without words the love song is the most legible. Besides, the most harmless of words can make mischief if they are taken in connection with what has preceded. The statement that twice two makes four is innocent enough in itself, but it may, under given circ.u.mstances, be made to say that she has two eyes and so have you, and that, if she could only vouchsafe to see with your eyes as you see with hers, twice two in this particular case would make one.

Nor need you propound subtle solutions of arithmetical problems; you need but admire the humble cottage as you go across fields with her, if you want to commit yourself irrevocably, and so too, the mere mention of the moon has been enough to dispose of a man for life.

Claude may not have strictly avoided every opening of this kind, but I certainly do not think he had any cause for self-reproach. I felt sorry for Jeanne, for it was evident that, for some time to come at least, there was little prospect of her regaining whatever hold she might have had on him. There was nothing to be done in that direction; so we shelved Mademoiselle Jeanne _sine die,_ and talked of the other one.

That other one had been particularly sympathetic in her appreciation of Claude's picture; it had at last been completed and sent to the Salon.

On the varnis.h.i.+ng day it was sold to a dealer for two thousand francs.

"That goes to the Madeleine fund," said Dupont, who was always planning great things for the girl's future.

"That goes to me," said the dealer, as he resold the picture and pocketed a profit of fifteen hundred francs.

The "Daughter of Jairus" could not fail to attract much attention.

Original as it was in its composition, and independent in its conception of a religious subject, it led to much heated controversy in the leading papers of the day. In some of them the artist was lauded to the skies; in others, roundly abused. Those three poor dear little innocents standing at the open door of Jairus's house, more than any other incident in the picture, gave rise to brilliant argument, vigorously attacked as they were on the one hand, and heroically defended on the other.

Virtually the able art-critics were divided into two camps, from which they issued grandiloquent manifestoes, and pa.s.sed judgment on art and artists, past, present, and future. I have not preserved cuttings from the papers, but I think I can give a pretty correct idea of the opposite views taken by those heaven-born wiseacres, the art-critics of the day, only apologising to them for my poor rendering of their doctrines.

"Monsieur Claude Dupont," said one set, "is a young man of great promise; he is a powerful draughtsman, and his gifts, if turned to account, may prove him to be a worthy champion of that severe and chaste school that gave us a Lesueur, an Ingres, and a Flandrin. Whilst prognosticating so bright a future to Monsieur Dupont, we feel, however, that we should not be doing our duty, if we did not warn him against the perverse influence that the apostles of the so-called Realistic school have already begun to exercise over his brush. We allude to the three children most unseemingly intruding on the grand scene that is being enacted in the house of sorrow. Let us hope that the danger that threatens the young artist may yet be averted, and that so much talent may be applied to perpetuate the traditions of a great past."

"Monsieur Claude Dupont," said the other camp, "has a great future before him, if he wisely utilises his gifts. We welcome in him a painter who, in his treatment of a religious subject, breaks with the traditions of an effete school. The introduction of those three children, peering with wondering eyes into the house of mysteries, we consider a stroke of genius. But for all that, the fetters forged by the past are still clinging to him. We heartily congratulate him on the step he has taken towards emanc.i.p.ation, but we would have him fully realise, that if he is to fulfil the brilliant promise of this his first picture, he must abjure once for all the errors and conventionalities of a school destined to perish at the hands of triumphant Realism."

These newspaper comments affected different people in different ways.

Rosa Bonheur Sinel resented anything short of unqualified praise, and was simply indignant with one writer who had ventured to criticise the drapery she had sat for. The article commenting on the masterly drawing of her foot, she kept in a discarded hatbox with other treasures, prominent amongst which was a defunct goldfish preserved in a gla.s.s bottle.

Madeleine was supremely happy. She had seen a very sympathetic notice in the leading paper of Lyons.

"I am proud of the picture," she wrote to Claude, "and I can think of nothing else. I am sure I am quite glad I was so ill, if that helped you at all. The man who wrote the article was kind enough to say he liked the way I opened my eyes so much, that he was glad I had come to life again. I thought that rather flippant. Don't you think so, too? But then he described the whole picture so beautifully, that I fancied I could see it; he seemed to like it all, only he wanted some more 'impasto.' What can that be? May I tell you about a dream I had? You know I am always having dreams; you won't mind, will you? It's quite short, and it is all about you. I saw you in a large looking-gla.s.s, but not all of you; only from your neck to your feet; I could not see your head. Besides, I should not have noticed it if it had been in the looking-gla.s.s; I could only look at your feet. You had those slippers on I embroidered for you last year, and I was so unhappy, because they were so ugly; so unhappy, that I woke up quite upset. And since then I've been thinking, how could I ever have sent you such a stupid flower pattern, all so hard and stiff? I do feel ashamed of it now.

"Madame Chevillard is so kind. She says I am her daughter, and I feel as if I really were. In the evening I go up to her room, and she unlocks her treasure cupboard, and takes out something to show me and tell me about. She has got beautiful books, and she lets me read them to her; she sits in her big armchair and looks sweet, and she seems to know everything that is in the books. There is one that just tells all about the artists; there are lots of hard words in it, and one can only read a little of it at a time. Sometimes she laughs at me, because I say I should like to be an artist, too.

I don't mean painting, but making some kind of thing beautifully.

"And often, when I read to her, I begin to wonder again how the thoughts get into the book, and I can get them out again.

"I ought to leave off writing, Madame Chevillard says, so adieu, Monsieur.--I am, your grateful friend,


Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 14

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