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The Rush for the Spoil(La Curée)ByÉmile Zola
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The Rush for the Spoil
Contributor: George Moore
Translator: Ernest Vizetelly
The public and the press have agreed that "L'Assommoir" is M. Zola's chef d'œuvre. Against this verdict I have no objection to offer. I believe it will meet with posterity's endorsement. But although "L'Assommoir" may lift its head the highest, there are many other volumes in the Rougon-Macquart series which stand on, and speak from equally lofty platforms of art. In my opinion, these are "La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret," "La Conquête de Plassans," and "La Curée."
I have spoken before of Zola as an epic poet: he is this more than he is anything, and as he is more epic in "La Curée" than elsewhere ("L'Assommoir" and "La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret" always excepted), it follows that it must be one of the best and most characteristic of his works. The qualities that endow a book with immortality exist independent of the artist's will, and the process of penetrating, of animating the whole with life, is accomplished as silently and unconsciously as the seed-grain germinates in the earth, as the child quickens with life in the womb. And, doubtless, Zola intended in the beginning to write merely the passionate love story of a woman who, oppressed and wearied of luxury, is forced to seek, in violent ways and fierce fancies, oblivion of golden idleness, of an aimless and satiated existence. This idea might have been worked out, and adequately worked out, in the analysis of the mind of a duke's daughter, who, after five years of husband hunting in London drawing-rooms, runs away and lives with her groom at Hampstead. And taken out of its setting, M. Zola's story is quite as simple. Renée is a young girl of the upper middle classes; she has been seduced; she is enceinte; it is necessary to find her a husband. Under such circumstances, it would be vain to be too particular, and an adventurer called Saccard is chosen. He is a genius who is waiting for a few pounds to make a million. Renée's fortune enables him to do this; he places her in a magnificent house in the Parc Monceaux; he gives her everything but an interest in life: to gain this she falls in love with her stepson, Maxime Saccard. The story of this incestuous passion becomes the theme of the book; and when Maxime deserts his stepmother to get married, she dies of consumption. That is all; but this slight outline soon began to grow, to take gigantic proportions in Zola's mind; and it was not long before he saw that his story was an allegory of the Second Empire. Renée became Paris; her dressmaker—Worms—became the Emperor; her dresses, the material of which costs sixty, the making-up of which, with the accumulated interest, costs six hundred, are the boulevards and buildings with which the city was adorned at ruinous expense. In the clamour of the fêtes in the Parc Monceaux, the demands of the creditors are silenced, and when Renée dies her debts are paid by her father—that is to say, by the Republic of M. Thiers.
Renée is a Venus, but not the Greek Venus—the white-breasted woman born of the sea foam and heralded by cupids and tritons; she is not even "the obscure Venus of the hollow Hill" that Baudelaire describes as having grown diabolic among ages that would not accept her as divine. Renée is the Venus of the counting house. Her hair is yellow as pale gold, her drawing-room is hung with yellow draperies, and her golden head, seen thereon as she leans back in her richly upholstered chairs, seems like a setting sun that sinks little by little, drowned in a bath of gold. But, unlike her earlier prototypes, she does not find the flesh sufficient; her sensualities are not the dark desire of the animal, but the nervous erethism of a human mind that, satiated with pleasure, longs and hungers for some strange and acute note to break the cloying sweetness—the monotonous melody of her life. Here there is no touch of pagan or mediæval thought. Maxime fears no god, he knows not remorse nor even desire; he is the son of the capitalist; he is the weed sprung from, but not the intelligence that has built up, the gold-heap, and he festers and rots like a weed in an overpoweringly rich soil. Saccard is Mammon. Nothing exists for him but gold. Thoughts, dreams, love, have long since disappeared; he is not even vicious: in the lust of speculation all other passions have been submerged, have sunk out of sight for ever. Men and things only suggest to him ideas for the accumulation of wealth; and from the heights of Montmartre he looks down upon Paris like a wolf upon its prey. His eyes flash with fierce light, his lips twitch with a wild mental hunger that manifests itself in physical actions: with his hand he divides Paris into sections, he sees how he will distribute it into boulevards, squares, and streets; and he hears in vision the cries of the huntsmen, and he longs to put himself at the head of the hounds, and to descend with open jaws upon the splendid quarry that even now run to death lies panting and bleeding before him.
The book is Paris—Paris as she feasted and flattered under the Second Empire—a Paris of adventurers, of courtezans—a Paris of debts—a Paris of women's shoulders, cotillons, champagne, of violins and pianos—a Paris of opera hats—a Paris of gold pieces, of fraud, of liars, of speculation, of supper tables—a Paris sonorous and empty as a wheel of fortune—a Paris of sweetmeats, rendezvous, bank-notes—a Paris of tresses of false hair forgotten in hackney carriages.
Yes, a Paris of this and of little else. There is the famous scene of the return from the Bois. Under the pale October sky, in which towards the Porte de la Muette, there still floats the dim light of an autumn sunset, the carriages are blocked; and the uncertain rays dance through the brightly painted wheels, touching with intense splendour the buckles of the harness, the large buttons on the liveries, and the burnished cockades. The artificial lake lies still, reflecting in its crystal clarity the innumerable graces of the poplars and pine trees that grow down to the very banks of the trim island. The walks are as bits of grey ribbon lost in the dark foliage. The scene looks like a newly varnished toy. All Paris is there—courtezans, diplomatists, and speculators. Renée is there; she is with Maxime, who is pointing out and telling her about his father's new mistress.
She is the celebrated Laure, to whose house Renée goes with Maxime, because she is anxious to know what a cocotte's ball is really like. Afterwards they sup, in a cabinet particulier, at the Café Riche. Renée is sipping a glass of chartreuse; the gas is hissing, the room has grown hot. They throw open the window. Paris rolls beneath them. The Boulevard is alive with the flashing lights of carriages, women go by in hundreds; they pass into the darkness of a traversing street; they reappear again like shadows thrown by a magic lantern. Groups of men sit round the tables at the door of the café; some are talking to women; some sit smoking vacantly, watching the interminable procession that passes and repasses before them. One woman wears a green silk; she sits with her legs crossed. Renée feels strangely interested. By-and-by, wearied of the Boulevard, she examines the looking-glass, scratched all over with diamond rings; and she asks Maxime questions concerning the women whose names are scrawled thereon. Maxime pleads ignorance: putting his cigar aside, he advances towards her; they look into each other's eyes; she falls into his arms.
There is the ball-room scene. Saccard is on the brink of ruin, but he gives a fête that costs him four thousand pounds. He is anxious that his son should marry a little hunchback, who has an immense fortune. The tableaux vivants are over, and the dancers, in the costumes of gods and goddesses, are dancing the cotillon. Renée, who is cognizant of her husband's projects, is wandering about mad with nervous rage and despair. She pursues Maxime, drags him with her into her bedroom, and tells him that he must fly with her to America, that she will never consent to give him up.
And I must not forget that requisite bit of description—ten lines, not more—which, for rapidity of observation and precision and delicacy of touch, seems to me unsurpassable; indeed, to find anything that might be set against it, I should have to turn to that supreme success, that final vindication of the divine power of words—Flaubert's "L'Éducation Sentimentale." The passage I allude to is when Renée goes to the great fête at the Tuileries. She wears a wonderful dress, composed entirely of white muslin and black velvet. The bodice is in black velvet, the skirt in white muslin, garnished with a million flounces, and all cut up and adorned with bows made out of black velvet: no ornament but one diamond in her fawn-coloured hair. Suddenly the people draw into lines, and the corpulent Emperor walks down the room on the arm of one of his generals. Renée shrinks back: but she cannot get away—she is in the front rank; and, when Napoleon fixes his, all eyes are fixed upon her. A heaven of lustres is above her head, a velvety carpet beneath her feet, and she hears the general whisper to the Emperor: "There's a carnation that would suit our button-holes uncommonly well." The rest of the fête is lost in this moment d'âme;—is an acute note that vibrates long in the monotonous melody of her life.
Whether "La Curée" is a faithful picture, true to the smallest detail, of life under the Second Empire, I cannot say. Nor do I care. I am content to take it for what it seems to me to be—a gorgeous, a golden poem, born of the author's contemplation of the scenes he describes. Although a tyrant, Napoleon the Third was a demagogue at heart. When he came into office Paris was starving. To govern, he saw that he would have to feed the people, and to do this the ingenious plan of creating an immense debt, living upon it and giving the city as security, was adopted. He appeased his enemies by calling new names to the front, he unchained, and he gave them unlimited means of gratifying their appetites. In a house of ill-fame politics do not occupy men's minds—why not turn Paris into a house of ill-fame? But what is true for individuals is true for nations: Sedan was the suicide of the prostituted city. This is the view M. Zola takes of the Second Empire. "La Curée" is but a corner of it, but I do not know any corner more beautifully finished, more perfectly proportioned. Of course faults may be urged: it may be said, and I admit with a certain show of reason, that the characters are more representative of the classes to which they belong than individual men and women. The same argument may be used, and with equal effect, against Hamlet, against Orestes, against every beautiful drawing of Hokousaï and Hokkeï: but when possible and impossible faults have been found, and all visible and invisible flaws taken note of, I believe it will be admitted by the blind, the dumb, and the lame that, when the last page of "La Curée" is read, the impression left upon the mind is one of intense artistic beauty.
On the return home, the carriage could only move slowly along amidst the mass of vehicles winding round the lake of the Bois de Boulogne. At one moment, the block became such that the horses were even brought to a standstill.
The sun was setting in the faint grey October sky, streaked with slender clouds on the horizon. A last ray, which came from above the distant shrubbery of the cascade, streamed across the roadway, bathing the long line of now stationary carriages in a pale ruddy light. The golden glimmers, the bright flashes from the wheels, seemed to have become fixed to the straw-coloured fillets, whilst the dark blue panels of the carriage reflected portions of the surrounding landscape. And, higher up, full in the ruddy light which illumined them from behind, and which gave a sparkle to the brass buttons of their overcoats folded over the back of the box-seat, the coachman and the footman, dressed in a livery consisting of dull blue coats, putty-coloured breeches, and black and yellow-striped waistcoats, sat erect, grave and patient, like well-trained lackeys, whose temper is above being ruffled by a block of vehicles. Their hats, embellished with black cockades, gave them a most dignified appearance. The superb bay horses were alone snorting impatiently.
"Hallo!" said Maxime, "there's Laure d'Aurigny over there in that brougham. Look, Renée."
Renée raised herself slightly, and, blinking her eyes with that exquisite pout which was caused by the weakness of her sight, said:
"I thought she was travelling. She has changed the colour of her hair, has she not?"
"Yes," replied Maxime, with a laugh, "her new lover detests everything red."
Renée, bent forward, her hand resting on the low door of the carriage, continued looking, awakened from the sad dream which, for an hour past, had kept her silently reclining on the back seat, as though in an invalid's easy-chair. Over a mauve dress with an upper skirt and tunic, and trimmed with broad plaited flounces, she wore a little white cloth jacket with mauve velvet facings, which gave her a very dashing air. Her extraordinary pale fawn-coloured hair, the hue of which recalled that of the finest butter, was scarcely concealed beneath a slender bonnet adorned with a cluster of crimson roses. She continued to blink her eyes, in the style of an impertinent boy, her pure brow crossed by one long wrinkle, her upper lip protruding just like a sulky child's. Then, as she was unable to distinguish very well, she raised her double eye-glass, a regular man's eye-glass with a tortoise-shell frame, and holding it up in her hand without placing it on her nose, she examined stout Laure d'Aurigny at her ease, in a perfectly calm manner.
The block still continued. Amidst the uniform, dull-coloured patches caused by the long line of broughams—extremely numerous in the Bois on that autumn afternoon—the glass of a window, a horse's bit, a plated lamp-holder, or the gold or silver lace on the livery of some lackey seated up on high, sparkled in the sun. Here and there an open landau displayed a glimpse of a dress, some woman's costume in silk or velvet. Little by little a profound silence had succeeded the hubbub of the now stationary mass. In the depths of the carriages one could overhear the remarks of the pedestrians. There was an exchange of speechless glances from vehicle to vehicle; and all conversation ceased during this deadlock, the silence of which was only broken by the creaking of harness and the impatient pawing of some horse. The confused murmurs of the Bois were dying away in the distance.
In spite of the lateness of the season, all Paris was there: the Duchess de Sternich, in a chariot; Madame de Lauwerens, in a victoria, drawn by some very fine cattle; Baroness de Meinhold, in a delicious dark brown private cab; Countess Vanska, with her piebald ponies; Madame Daste and her famous black steppers; Madame de Guende and Madame Teissière, in a brougham; little Sylvia, in a deep blue landau; and Don Carlos, too, in mourning, with his ancient and solemn-looking livery; Selim Pasha, with his fez and without his tutor; the Duchess de Rozan, in her single-seated brougham, and with her powdered lackeys; Count de Chibray, in a dog-cart; Mr. Simpson, on a well-appointed mail-coach; the whole of the American colony. Finally, two members of the Academy in a cab.
The leading carriages were at length released, and the whole line was soon able to move slowly onwards. It was like an awakening. A thousand scintillations danced around, rapid flashes played to and fro amidst the wheels, whilst the harness shaken by the horses emitted a galaxy of sparks. Along the ground and on the trees were broad reflexions of fleeting glass. This glistening of harness and of wheels, this blaze of varnished panels all aglow with the red fire of the setting sun, the bright touches of the gorgeous liveries perched up on high, and of the rich costumes bursting from the confined space of the equipages, passed along in the midst of a hollow, continuous rumbling, timed by the pace of the thoroughbreds. And the procession continued, accompanied by the same sounds and the same scintillations, unceasingly and at one spurt, as though the leading vehicles had been dragging all the others after them.
Renée had yielded to the slight jolting of the carriage as it once more started off, and, dropping her eye-glass, she had resumed her half-reclining posture on the cushions. She shiveringly drew towards her a corner of the bearskin which filled the interior of the vehicle with a silky snow-white mass. Her gloved hands became lost amidst the long soft curly hairs. The north wind was beginning to blow. The warm October afternoon which, in giving to the Bois an appearance of spring, had brought out the most fashionable ladies in their open carriages, threatened to end in an evening of piercing chilliness.
For a while the young woman remained huddled up, enjoying the warmth of her corner, and abandoning herself to the voluptuous lullaby of all those wheels turning before her eyes. Then, raising her head towards Maxime, whose glances were quietly unrobing the women displayed in the adjoining broughams and landaus, she asked:
"Really now, do you think her pretty, that Laure d'Aurigny? You were praising her up so much the other day when some one spoke of the sale of her diamonds! By the way, you have notseen the necklace and the aigrette that your father bought me at the sale."
"Ah! He does everything well," said Maxime with a spiteful laugh, and without answering her question. "He manages to pay Laure's debts, and to make his wife presents of diamonds."
The young woman slightly shrugged her shoulders.
"Rascal!" murmured she with a smile.
But the young man had leant forward, following with his eyes a lady whose green dress interested him. Renée was resting her head, her eyes half closed, idly glancing at both sides of the avenue, but without seeing. On the right were copses and low bushes, with slender branches and reddened leaves; now and again, on the track reserved for riders, passed slim built gentlemen whose galloping steeds raised little clouds of dust. On the left, at the foot of the narrow sloping lawns, intersected by flower-beds and shrubberies, the lake, as clear as crystal, reposed without a ripple, as though neatly trimmed all round by the spades of the gardeners; and, on the opposite side of this limpid mirror, the two islands, with the connecting bridge forming a grey bar between them, displayed their pleasant shores, arraying against the pale sky the theatrical lines of their firs and of their evergreens, the dark foliage of which, similar to the fringe of curtains skilfully hung on the very edge of the horizon, was reflected in the still waters. This corner of nature, having the appearance of a piece of scenery freshly painted, was bathed in a slight shadow, in a bluey vapour which finished giving an exquisite charm to the background, an air of adorable falsity. On the other bank, the Châlet des Îles, looking freshly varnished, shone like a new toy; and those gravel contours, those narrow garden walks, which wind in and out of the lawns and border the lake, and are edged with cast-iron hoops imitating rustic woodwork, stood out more curiously from the soft green of the water and of the grass, at this last hour of daylight.
Used to the graces of these skilfully arranged points of view, Renée, again yielding to her feeling of weariness, had completely lowered her eyelids, no longer observing aught but her tapering fingers as she twined around them the long hairs of the bearskin. But there came a kind of jerk in the even trot of the line of carriages. And, raising her head, she bowed to two young women reclining side by side, with amorous languor, in a barouche which was noisily leaving the road that skirts the lane to turn down one of the lateral avenues. The Marchionessd'Espanet, whose husband, at that time one of the emperor's aides-de-camp, had just rallied with a good deal of fuss to the scandal of the sulking old nobility, was one of the most illustrious society queens of the Second Empire; the other, Madame Haffner, had married a famous manufacturer of Colmar, twenty times millionaire, and whom the Empire was turning into a political personage. Renée, who had known at school the two inseparables as they were slyly termed, always called them by their Christian names, Adeline and Suzanne. As, after greeting them with a smile, she was about to once more huddle herself up in her wraps, a laugh from Maxime caused her to turn round.
"No, really now, I feel sad, don't laugh, it's serious," said she on seeing the young man looking at her mockingly, making fun of her recumbent posture.
Maxime assumed a ludicrous tone of voice.
"We are very much to be pitied, we are jealous!"
She seemed quite astonished.
"I!" said she. "Jealous! Whatever about?"
Then she added, with her disdainful pout, as though suddenly recollecting:
"Ah! Yes, big Laure! She doesn't trouble me much, I can assure you. If Aristide, as you all wish to make me believe, has paid the creature's debts and thus saved her the necessity of taking a trip to foreign parts, it merely shows that he loves money less than I thought he did. This will make him quite a favourite with the ladies again. The dear fellow, I never interfere with him."
She smiled, she uttered "the dear fellow," in a tone of voice full of friendly indifference. And all on a sudden, becoming quite sad again, and casting around her that despairing glance of women who know not how to amuse themselves, she murmured:
"Oh! I should be only too delighted—but no, I'm not jealous, not in the least jealous."
She stopped, hesitating.
"You see, I feel bored," she at length said abruptly.
Then she relapsed into silence, her lips pressed firmly together. The line of vehicles still wended its way round the lake, with an uniform trot, and a noise greatly resembling that of some distant cataract. Now, on the left, between the water and the roadway, rose little clumps of evergreens with thin straight stems, forming curious clusters of tiny columns. On the right, the copses and low bushes had come to an end; the Bois had expanded into large lawns, immense carpets of turf, with groups of tall trees planted here and there; the greensward continued, with gentle undulations, as far as the Porte de la Muette, the low iron gates of which, looking like a piece of black lace drawn across the ground, could be seen far away in the distance; and, on the slopes, at the parts where the earth sank in, the grass had quite a bluey look. Renée gazed with fixed eyes, as though this enlargement of the horizon, these soft meads, all reeking with the night dew, had caused her to feel more keenly than ever the emptiness of her existence.
At the end of a pause she repeated, with the accents of subdued anger:
"Oh! I feel bored, I feel bored to death."
"You're not over lively, you know," said Maxime, quietly. "It's your nerves, I'm sure."
The young woman threw herself back again on her cushions.
"Yes, it's my nerves," retorted she, sharply.
Then she became quite maternal.
"I am growing old, my dear child; I shall soon be thirty. It's terrible. I take pleasure in nothing. At twenty, you cannot understand this."
"Did you ask me to come with you to listen to your confession?" interrupted the young man. "It will be terribly long."
She received this impertinent remark with a feeble smile, as though dealing with a spoilt child to whom everything is permitted.
"You're a nice one to complain," continued Maxime; "you spend more than a hundred thousand francs a year on your dress, you live in a splendid mansion, you possess some superb horses, your caprices become law, and the newspapers mention every new dress you wear as though they were relating something of the highest importance; all the women are jealous of you, every man would give ten years of his life just to kiss the tips of your fingers. Is it not so?"
She nodded her head affirmatively, but did not otherwise answer. With eyes cast down, she was again curling the hairs of the bearskin.
"Ah! do not be modest," resumed Maxime; "admit at once that you are one of the pillars of the Second Empire. Between ourselves, we can speak of these things. Everywhere, at theTuileries, at the ministries, at the mansions of the mere millionaires, over the highest and the lowest, you reign with sovereign power. There is not a pleasure you have not partaken of, and if I dared, if the respect I owe you did not restrain me, I would say—"
He paused for a few seconds, laughing the while; then he cavalierly finished his sentence.
"I would say that you have tasted of every apple."
She did not wince.
"And yet you feel bored!" continued the young man with ludicrous vivacity. "But it's downright suicide! What is it you want? Whatever is it you are dreaming of?"
She shrugged her shoulders, by way of saying she did not know. Though she held her head down, Maxime saw such a serious, such a gloomy look on her face, that he left off speaking. He watched the line of vehicles which, on reaching the end of the lake, spread out, and filled the vast carrefour. The carriages, no longer being so closely packed together, turned round with a superb grace; whilst the accelerated trot of the horses resounded loudly on the hard ground.
On going the round to rejoin the line, the carriage oscillated in a way which filled Maxime with a vague voluptuousness. Then, yielding to a desire to overwhelm Renée, he resumed:
"Ah! You deserve to never ride in anything better than a cab! It would serve you right! Why, just look at this crowd returning to Paris, this crowd ready to fall down and worship you. You are hailed as a queen, and your dear friend Monsieur de Mussy can scarcely restrain himself from blowing kisses to you."
DE MUSSY MEETING RENÉE AND MAXIME DRIVING IN THE BOIS.
And indeed, a rider was at that moment bowing to Renée. Maxime had been speaking in a hypocritically mocking way. But Renée scarcely turned round, and contented herself by shrugging her shoulders. This time, the young man made a despairing gesture.
"Really," said he, "is it as bad as all that? But, good heavens! You have everything, what more do you want?"
Renée raised her head. Her eyes had a warm bright look, the ardent desire of unsatiated curiosity.
"I want something else," replied she in a low voice.
"But you have everything," resumed Maxime laughing, "something else is no answer. What is the something else you want?"
"Ah! What!" repeated she.
And she said nothing further. She had turned completely round, and was contemplating the strange picture which was disappearing behind her. It was now almost dark; dusk was gradually enveloping all like a fine dust. The lake, when looked at front ways, in the pale light which still hovered over it, seemed to become rounder, and had the appearance of an immense plate of brass; on either side, the plantations of evergreens, the slim straight stems of which looked as though they issued from the still water, assumed at this hour the aspect of violet tinted colonnades, describing with their regular architecture the elaborate curves of the shores; then, right at the back, rose groups of shrubs and trees, confused masses of foliage, broad black patches closing the horizon. Behind these patches there shone a bright glimmer, an expiring sunset which merely lit up a very small portion of the grey immensity. Above this motionless lake and these low copses, this point of view so peculiarly flat, the vault of heaven opened infinite, deeper and more expanded still. This great extent of sky over this tiny corner of nature caused a shudder, an undefinable sadness; and there descended from these pale altitudes such an autumnal melancholy, so sweet and yet so heartbreaking a darkness, that the Bois, enveloped little by little in a veil of obscurity, lost its worldly graces, and breaking its bounds became filled with all the powerful charm of a forest. The rumble of the vehicles, the bright colours of which became lost in the dim light, sounded like the distant murmurs of leaves and water-courses. Everything had an expiring air. In the centre of the lake, amidst the universal evanescence, the Latin sail of the large pleasure boat stood out, vigorously defined, against the last glow of the sunset. And one could no longer distinguish anything but this sail, this triangle of yellow canvas, inordinately enlarged.
In the midst of her satiety, Renée experienced a singular sensation of unavowable desires at the sight of this landscape she no longer recognised, of this bit of nature so artistically worldly, and which by its great shivering darkness seemed changed into some sacred wood, one of those ideal glades in whose recesses the gods of antiquity used to hide their giant loves, their divine adulteries and incests. And as the carriage drove away, it seemed to her that the twilight carried off behind her, hidden in its trembling veil, the land of her dreams, the shameful and unearthly alcove where she might at last have swaged her suffering heart, her wearied flesh.
When the lake and the copses, rapidly vanishing in the shades of night, merely appeared as a black bar against the sky, the young woman turned abruptly round, and, in a voice full of tears of vexation, she resumed her interrupted sentence:
"What? Why something else, of course! I want something else. How can I tell what? If I only knew—but, you see, I'm sick of balls, of supper parties, of merry-makings. It's always the same thing over again. It's mortal. Men are unbearable, oh! Yes, unbearable."
Maxime burst out laughing. Ardent desires pierced through the fashionable beauty's aristocratic bearing. She no longer blinked her eyes; the wrinkle on her forehead became more harshly accentuated; her lip, like a sulky child's, stood out, full of passion, in quest of those enjoyments for which she longed though unable to name them. She beheld her companion laughing, but she was too transported to stop; half reclining and swayed by the motion of the carriage, she continued in short jerky sentences:
"Yes, really, you are unbearable. I don't say that for you, Maxime; you are too young. But if I only told you how Aristide wearied me in the early days! And the others too! Those who have loved me. You know, we are two good friends, I don't stand on ceremony with you; well! Really, there are days when I am so tired of living my life of a rich, adored and honoured woman, that I should like to be a Laure d'Aurigny, one of those ladies who live like men."
And as Maxime laughed louder than ever, she laid more stress upon her words:
"Yes, a Laure d'Aurigny. It would surely be less insipid, not so much always the same thing."
She kept silent a few minutes, as though she were conjuring up the life she would lead, were she Laure. Then, she resumed in a tone of discouragement:
"After all, those ladies must have their troubles also. There is decidedly nothing really amusing. It's enough to make one sick of life. I was right when I said there was something else wanting; I can't guess what, you know; but something else, something which does not happen to every one, which one does not meet with every day, which would give a rare, an unknown enjoyment."
Her voice had softened. She uttered these last words as though she were seeking something, gradually falling into a deep reverie. The carriage was then ascending the avenue which leads to the way out of the Bois. The darkness increased; the undergrowth, on either side, flew past them like two grey walls; the yellow painted iron chairs, on which the holiday-making citizens lounge on fine evenings, sped along the side-walks, unoccupied, and wrapt in that black melancholy peculiar to garden furniture overtaken by winter; and the rumble, the dull and cadenced sound of the returning vehicles, was wafted over the deserted way like some sad wail.
No doubt Maxime felt all the bad form there was in finding life amusing. If he was still young enough to yield to an outburst of delighted admiration, he possessed an egotism too vast, an indifference too scoffing, he already felt too much real weariness, to do other than declare himself sick of everything, satiated, done for. He was usually in the habit of glorifying in this avowal.
He stretched himself out like Renée, and assumed a doleful tone of voice.
"Really now! You're right," said he; "it's enough to kill one. Ah! I don't amuse myself any more than you, you may be sure; I too have often dreamed of something else. Nothing is stupider than travelling. As for making money, I prefer far more to spend it, though that is not always as amusing as one would fancy at first. Then there's love-making, being loved, one soon has more than enough of it, is it not so? Ah yes, one soon has more than enough of it!"
As the young woman did not answer, he continued, washing to astonish her by something grossly impious:
"I should like to be loved by a nun. Eh! Perhaps there would be some amusement in that! Have you never dreamed of loving a man of whom you could never think without committing a crime?"
But she remained gloomy, and Maxime, seeing that she still kept silent, thought that she was not listening to him. With the nape of her neck leaning against the padded edge of the carriage, she seemed sleeping with her eyes open. She was wrapt in thought, inert, full of the dreams which kept her thus depressed, and, at times, a nervous twinge passed over her lips. She was softly overcome by the shadow of the twilight; all that this shadow contained of undefined sadness, of discreet voluptuousness, of unavowed hope, penetrated her, bathed her in a sort of languid and morbid atmosphere. Whilst looking fixedly at the round back of the footman on the box-seat, she was thinking no doubt of those joys of former days, of those parties she now found so dull, and for which she no longer cared; she looked back on her past life, the immediate satisfaction of every whim, the fulsomeness of luxury, the crushing monotony of similar affections and similar betrayals. Then, like a hope, there arose in her, as she quivered with desire, the thought of this "something else" which her overwrought mind was unable to fix upon. There, her reverie wandered. She made effort upon effort, but each time the sought-for word disappeared in the gathering night, became lost in the continuous rumble of the vehicles. The gentle motion of the carriage was a hesitation the more which prevented her formulating her desire. And an immense temptation ascended from out of this vagueness, from these copses slumbering in the shadows on either side of the avenue, from this noise of wheels and from this soft oscillation which filled her with a delicious torpor. A thousand little thrills passed over her flesh: unfinished dreams, nameless ecstasies, confused wishes, all the grace and monstrosity which a return from the Bois, at the hour when the heavens assume a pallid hue, can introduce into the wearied heart of a woman. She kept her hands buried in the bearskin, she felt quite hot in her white cloth jacket with mauve velvet facings. On thrusting out her foot as she stretched herself with bodily enjoyment her ankle rubbed against Maxime's warm leg, but he did not even notice the contact of her flesh. A jerk roused her from her lethargy. She raised her head, and her grey eyes looked in a bewildered sort of way at the young man who was seated in the most elegant attitude.
At this moment, the carriage left the Bois. The Avenue de l'Impératrice extended in a straight line in the twilight, with the two green borders of wooden fence which seemed to meet at the horizon. In the distance, a white horse, on the side-path reserved for riders, appeared like a bright speck in the midst of the grey shadow. Here and there, on the opposite side of the roadway, were groups of black dots, belated pedestrians, slowly wending their steps towards Paris. And, right at the top, at the end of the mixed and moving line of vehicles, the Arc-de-Triomphe, placed sideways, stood out all white against a vast stretch of sky the colour of soot.
Whilst the carriage ascended at a faster pace, Maxime, charmed with the English appearance of the landscape, examined the whimsically designed villas on either side of the avenue, with their lawns sloping down to the footpaths; Renée, still wrapt in reverie, amused herself by watching at the edge of the horizon the gas-lamps of the Place de l'Étoile as they were lighted up one by one; and as fast as their bright glimmers speckled the expiring light with little yellow flames, she fancied she could hear secret calls, it seemed to her that the flaring Paris of a winter's night was being illuminated on her account, and was preparing for her the unknown enjoyment after which her satiated body hankered.
The carriage turned down the Avenue de la Reine-Hortense, and drew up at the end of the Rue Monceaux, a few steps from the Boulevard Malesherbes, in front of a grand mansion situated between a courtyard and a garden. The two iron gates loaded with gilt ornaments, which gave admittance to the courtyard, were each flanked by a pair of lamps, shaped like urns and also covered with gilding, in which flared great flames of gas. Between the two gates, the doorkeeper occupied an elegant lodge which vaguely resembled a little Greek temple.
At the moment the carriage was about to enter the courtyard, Maxime jumped nimbly out.
"You know," said Renée, as she caught hold of his hand to detain him, "we dine at half-past seven. You have more than an hour to dress in. Don't keep us waiting."
And she added with a smile:
"We are expecting the Mareuils. Your father wishes you to be very attentive to Louise."
Maxime shrugged his shoulders.
"What a bore!" murmured he in a sullen tone of voice. "I don't mind marrying, but as for courting, it's too stupid. Ah! It would be so nice of you, Renée, if you would deliver me from Louise this evening."
He put on his most comical look, mimicking the grimace and the accent of the actor Lassouche, as he did every time he was about to make one of his funny remarks.
"Will you, my pretty darling mamma?"
Renée shook hands with him as with a comrade. And rapidly, with an audacity full of a nervous raillery, she answered:
"Ah! If I had not married your father, I really believe you would court me."
This idea must have struck the young man as highly comical, for he had turned the corner of the Boulevard Malesherbes before he had done laughing.
The carriage entered and drew up at the foot of the steps.
These steps, which were broad and low, were sheltered by a vast glass verandah edged with a scallop imitating golden fringe and tassels. The two storeys of the mansion rose above the domestic offices, the square windows of which, glazed with ground glass, appeared almost on a level with the soil. At the top of the steps, the hall-door stood out flanked by slender columns fixed in the wall, forming thus a kind of fore-part pierced at each floor by a round bay, and ascending as high as the roof where it terminated in a point. On either side, each storey had five windows, placed at regular intervals along the façade, and surrounded by a simple stone border. The roof, with its attic windows, was square shaped, with broad sides almost perpendicular.
But the façade on the garden side was far more sumptuous. A regal flight of steps led to a narrow terrace which extended the whole length of the ground floor; the balustrade of this terrace, in the style of the railings of the Parc Monceaux, was even more covered with gilt than the verandah and the lamps of the courtyard. Above this rose the mansion with a wing at either end, like two towers half inserted in the body of the building, and which contained rooms of circular shape. In the centre, another tower, even deeper inserted still, formed a slight curve. The windows, tall and narrow in the wings, wider apart and almost square on the flat portions of the façade, had stone balustrades on the ground floor, and gilded wrought-iron handrails at the upper storeys. It was a display, a profusion, a superabundance of riches. The mansion disappeared beneath the carvings. Around the windows, along the cornices, were scrolls of flowers and branches; there were balconies resembling masses of verdure supported by great nude women with strained hips and protruding breasts; then, here and there, were fantastical escutcheons, bunches of fruit, roses, every blossom it is possible to represent in stone or marble. As fast as one's glance ascended, the building seemed to bloom the more. Around the roof was a balustrade, bearing at equal distances urns on which burnt flames of stone. And there, between the oval windows of the attics, which opened amidst an incredible medley of fruits and foliage, expanded the crowning portions of this amazing ornamentation, the pediments of the two wings in the centre of which reappeared the great nude women, playing with apples and standing in every conceivable posture amongst sheaves of reeds. The roof, loaded with these ornaments, surmounted besides with galleries of carved lead, with two lightning conductors and with four enormous symmetrical chimney stacks sculptured like all the rest, seemed to be the final flare up of this architectural firework.
To the right was a vast conservatory, fixed to the side of the mansion, and communicating with the ground floor by means of a French window opening out of a little drawing-room. The garden, separated from the Parc Monceaux by a low iron railing hidden by a hedge, sloped rather sharply. Too small for the house, and so narrow that a lawn and a few clumps of evergreens occupied the entire space, it simply formed a kind of knoll, a verdant pedestal, on which the mansion was proudly planted decked out in its gayest attire. Seen from the park, towering above the bright grass and the shining foliage of the shrubs, this great building, looking still new and quite sickly, had the sallow complexion, the stupid and moneyed importance of some female upstart, with its heavy head-dress of slates, its gilded balustrades, and its flood of sculpture. It was a reproduction of the new Louvre on a smaller scale, one of the most characteristic specimens of the style of the Second Empire, that opulent bastard of every style. On summer evenings, when the last rays of the sun lit up the gilt of the balustrades against the white façade, the strollers in the park would stop to look at the red silk curtains hanging at the ground floor windows; and, through panes so large and clear that they seemed, like those of the great modern emporiums, placed there to display the interior wealth to the outer world, these families of modest citizens would catch glimpses of articles of furniture, of portions of hangings, and of corners of ceilings of dazzling splendour, the sight of which would root them to the spot with admiration and envy right in the centre of the pathways.
But, at this hour, the trees cast their shadows over the façade which was wrapt in gloom. In the courtyard on the other side, the footman had respectfully assisted Renée to alight from the carriage. The stables, with red brick dressings, opened on the right their wide doors of polished oak, at the end of a glass-roofed yard. On the left, as though to counterbalance, was a richly ornamented recess in the wall of the adjoining house, with a fountain of water perpetually flowing from a shell which two cupids supported in their outstretched arms. The young woman stood a moment at the foot of the steps, gently tapping her skirt to get it to hang right. The courtyard, through which the noise of the return had just passed, resumed its solitude, its aristocratic silence, broken by the eternal sing-song of the dripping water. And as yet, amidst the great black mass of the mansion—the chandeliers of which were so soon to be illuminated on the occasion of the first of the grand dinner parties of the autumn—only the lower windows were lighted up, all aglow and casting the bright reflection of a conflagration on the small paving-stones of the courtyard, as neat and regular as a draught-board.
As Renée pushed open the hall door, she found herself face to face with her husband's valet, who was on his way to the servants' quarters and carrying a silver kettle. Dressed all in black, tall, strong, pale-faced, this man looked superb, with the whiskers of an English diplomatist, and the grave and dignified air of a magistrate.
"Baptiste," inquired the young woman, "has your master come in?"
"Yes, madame, he is dressing," replied the valet with a bow worthy of a prince acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd.
Renée slowly ascended the staircase, withdrawing her gloves the while.
The hall was fitted up most luxuriously. On entering, one experienced a slightly suffocating sensation. The thick carpets, which covered the floor and the stairs, the broad red velvet hangings which hid the walls and the doors, made the atmosphere heavy with the silence and the warm fragrance of a chapel. The draperies hung from on high, and the lofty ceiling was ornamented with salient arabesques on a golden trellis. The staircase, with its double balustrade of white marble and handrail covered with red velvet, opened out into two slightly winding branches between which was placed the entrance to the grand drawing-room right at the back. An immense mirror covered the whole of the wall on the first landing. Down below, at the foot of the branching staircase, two bronze gilt female figures, on marble pedestals and nude down to the waist, supported gigantic lamp-posts carrying five burners, the brilliant light from which was softened by ground glass globes. And on either side was a row of splendid vases in majolica ware in which blossomed the rarest plants.
Renée ascended, and at each step she took her reflection in the mirror increased in size; she was asking herself, with that doubt entertained by the most popular actresses, whether she were really delicious, as every one told her.
Then, when she had reached her apartment, which was on the first floor, and overlooked the Parc Monceaux, she rang for Céleste, her maid, and had herself dressed for dinner. This operation lasted a good three quarters of an hour. When the last pin had been fixed, she opened the window as the room was very close, and leaning out remained there wrapt in thought. Behind her, Céleste was moving discreetly about, tidying the room.
Down below, the park was immersed in a sea of shadow. The inky coloured masses of the tall trees, shaken by sudden gusts of wind, swayed to and fro like the tide, with that rustling of dead leaves which recalls the breaking of the waves on a shingly strand. Piercing now and again this ebb and flow of darkness, the two yellow eyes of a carriage would appear and vanish between the shrubberies bordering the road which connects the Avenue de la Reine-Hortense with the Boulevard Malesherbes. In the face of all this autumnal melancholy Renée's sad thoughts returned. She fancied herself once more a child in her father's house, in that silent mansion of the Île Saint-Louis, where for two centuries past the Béraud Du Châtels had sheltered their gloomy magisterial gravity. Then her thoughts turned to her sudden marriage, to that widower who sold himself to become her husband, and who had trucked his name of Rougon for that of Saccard, the two sharp syllables of which had sounded in her ears, when first pronounced before her, with all the brutality of two rakes gathering up gold; he took her, and cast her into this life of turmoil amidst which her poor brain became a little more cracked every day. Then she set to dreaming with a childish joy of the happy games at battledore and shuttlecock she had played in the old times with her young sister Christine. And, some morning, she would awake from the dream of enjoyment she had been indulging for ten years past, crazy, and befouled by one of her husband's speculations, in which he himself would also sink. This passed before her like a rapid presentiment. The trees were lamenting in a louder tone. Troubled by these thoughts of shame and punishment, Renée yielded to the old and worthy middle-class instincts slumbering within her; she promised the black night she would reform, that she would no longer spend so much on her dress, and that she would seek some innocent occupation to amuse her, like in the happy school days, when she and her playmates sang beneath the plane-trees and danced in a ring.
At this moment, Céleste, who had been downstairs, returned and murmured in her mistress's ear:
"Master would be glad if madame would go down. There are already several persons in the drawing-room."
Renée started. She had not felt the chilly air which was freezing her shoulders. As she passed before her looking-glass, she stopped and glanced at herself mechanically. With an involuntary smile she went down.
And, indeed, most of the guests had arrived. There were her sister Christine, a young lady of twenty, very simply dressed in white muslin; her aunt Élisabeth, the widow of the notary Aubertot, in black satin, a little old woman of sixty, of most exquisite amiability; her husband's sister, Sidonie Rougon, a gentle, scraggy woman, of no particular age, with a face like soft wax, and whose dull-coloured dress effaced still further; then the Mareuils, the father, Monsieur de Mareuil, who had just gone out of mourning for his wife, a tall handsome man, empty-headed and serious, bearing a striking resemblance to the valet Baptiste; and the daughter, that poor Louise as people called her, a young girl of seventeen, puny and slightly hump-backed, who wore with a sickly grace a soft white silk dress with red spots; then quite a group of serious men, gentlemen wearing many decorations, official personages with pale and solemn faces; and, farther off, another group, young men with an air of vice about them, and wearing low cut waistcoats, surrounding five or six ladies of the greatest elegance, amongst whom throned the inseparables, the little Marchioness d'Espanet, in yellow, and the fair Madame Haffner, in violet. Monsieur de Mussy, the cavalier whose bow Renée had ignored, was also there, with the uneasy look of a lover expecting to receive his dismissal. And, in the midst of the long trains spread out over the carpet, two contractors, masons who had made their fortunes, named Mignon and Charrier, with whom Saccard had some business to settle on the morrow, were moving heavily about on their big feet, holding their hands behind their backs and feeling most uncomfortable in their dress suits.
Standing near the door, Aristide Saccard managed to greet each new arrival, whilst holding forth to the group of serious men with all his southern animation and snuffling. He shook the guest's hand and spoke a few amiable words. Short, and pitiful-looking, he bobbed up and down like a puppet; and of all his puny, dark and crafty person, the most prominent object was the red bow of his ribbon of the Legion of Honour which he wore very large.
When Renée entered, there rose a murmur of admiration. She was truly divine. Over a lower skirt of tulle, trimmed behind with a mass of flounces, she wore a tunic of pale green satin, edged with a broad border of English lace, and gathered up and fastened by large bunches of violets; a single flounce adorned the front of the skirt over which was a light muslin drapery kept in its place by more bunches of violets joined together by garlands of ivy. The gracefulness of the head and bust were adorable, above this skirt of royal amplitude and slightly overdone richness. Uncovered at the neck as low as the breast, her arms bare with tufts of violets on her shoulders, the young woman seemed to be emerging all naked from her sheath of tulle and satin, similar to one of those nymphs whose busts issue from the sacred oaks; and her white neck, her supple frame, appeared so delighted with this semi-freedom, that one expected at every moment to see the bodice and the skirts slip down like the costume of a bather in love with her flesh. Her tall head-dress, her fine yellow hair gathered up in the form of a helmet, and amidst which twined a sprig of ivy held in its place by a bunch of violets, increased still more her air of nudity by displaying the nape of her neck, slightly shaded by little downy hairs resembling threads of gold. Round her neck she wore a diamond necklace with pendants of the first water, and on her brow an aigrette formed of stems of silver set with the same precious stones. And she stood thus for a few seconds on the threshold of the room, erect in this magnificent costume, her shoulders shining in the warm glow. As she had come down quickly she was rather out of breath. Her eyes, which the darkness of the Parc Monceaux had filled with shadow, blinked in that sudden flood of light, and gave her that hesitating air of short-sighted people, which with her was full of gracefulness.
On perceiving her, the little marchioness rose hastily from her seat, and running up to her, seized hold of her hands; whilst examining her from her head down to her feet she murmured in a fluty tone of voice:
"Ah! Pretty darling, pretty darling."
Then there was considerable commotion, all the guests came to pay their respects to the beautiful Madame Saccard, as Renée was called in society. She shook hands with nearly all the men. After which she embraced Christine, and inquired after her father who never visited the mansion in the Parc Monceaux. And she remained standing, smiling and still bowing, with her arms held indolently open, before the circle of ladies who were examining with curious eyes the diamond necklace and aigrette.
Fair Madame Haffner could not resist the temptation; she drew nearer, and after looking a long while at the jewels, said in a jealous tone of voice:
"They are the necklace and the aigrette, are they not?"
Renée nodded her head affirmatively. Then all the women gave vent to their praise; the jewels were enchanting, divine; then they began to speak, with an admiration full of envy, of Laure d'Aurigny's sale at which Saccard had bought them for his wife; they complained that those frail creatures always secured the best things, there would soon be no diamonds at all for virtuous women. And out of their complaints pierced the desire to feel on their bare skin one of those jewels which all Paris had beheld on the shoulders of some illustrious courtesan, and which would perhaps whisper in their ear the alcove scandals on which the thoughts of these grand ladies loved to linger. They knew the high prices realised, they quoted a superb cashmere, some magnificent lace. The aigrette had cost fifteen thousand francs, the necklace fifty thousand. Madame d'Espanet was quite enthusiastic about these figures. She called Saccard, exclaiming:
"Come and be congratulated! You are a good husband!"
Aristide Saccard went up to the ladies, bowed and did the modest. But his grimacing features betrayed a great delight. And out of the corner of his eye he watched the two contractors, the two masons who had made their fortunes, who were standing a few paces off listening with visible respect to the mention of such sums as fifteen thousand and fifty thousand francs.
At this moment, Maxime, who had just entered the room, looking adorable in his well-cut dress-coat, leant familiarly on his father's shoulder, and spoke to him in a low tone, as though to a comrade, calling his attention to the masons with a glance. Saccard smiled discreetly like an applauded actor.
A few more guests arrived. There were quite thirty persons in the drawing-room. The conversations were resumed; during the pauses, one could hear, on the other side of the wall, a jingling of crockery and plate. At length Baptiste opened the folding doors, and majestically uttered the sacramental phrase: "Madame is served."
Then, the procession slowly formed. Saccard gave his arm to the little marchioness; Renée took an old gentleman's, a senator, Baron Gouraud, before whom everyone bowed down with great humility; as for Maxime, he was obliged to offer his arm to Louise de Mareuil; then followed the rest of the guests, in couples, and right at the end the two contractors swinging their arms.
The dining-room was a vast square apartment with a high dado all round of stained and varnished pear-tree ornamented with thin fillets of gold. The four large panels had probably been intended to be filled with paintings of inanimate objects; but they had remained empty, the owner of the mansion having no doubt hesitated before a purely artistical outlay. They had simply been covered over with dark green velvet. The furniture, the curtains and the door-hangings of the same material, gave to the room a grave and sober appearance calculated to concentrate on the table all the splendour of the illumination.
And indeed, at this hour, in the centre of the vast sombre Turkey carpet which deadened the sound of the footsteps, beneath the glaring light of the chandelier, the table, surrounded by chairs, the black backs of which relieved by fillets of gold framed it with a dark line, appeared like an altar, like some illuminated chapel, as the bright scintillations of the crystal glass and the silver plate sparkled on the dazzling whiteness of the cloth. In the floating shadow beyond the carved chair backs, one could just catch a glimpse of the wainscotting, of a large low sideboard, and of portions of velvet hangings trailing about. One's eyes forcibly returned to the table, and became filled with all this splendour. An admirable unpolished silver epergne glittering with chased work occupied the centre; it represented a troop of fauns bearing away some nymphs; and, issuing from an immense cornucopia above the group, an enormous bouquet of natural flowers hung down in clusters. At either end of the table were some vases also containing bunches of flowers; two candelabra matching the centre group, and each consisting of a satyr in full flight bearing on one arm a swooning woman, whilst with the other he grasped a ten-branched candelabrum, added the bright light of their candles to the radiance of the central chandelier. Between these principal objects the hot dishes, both large and small, bearing the first course, were symmetrically arranged in lines, flanked by shells filled with the hors-d'œuvre
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