Full Online Books
BOOK CATEGORIES
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
LINKS
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
donate
Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nabob - Chapter 20. La Baronne Hemerlingue
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
The Nabob - Chapter 20. La Baronne Hemerlingue Post by :rasheedali Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :2899

Click below to download : The Nabob - Chapter 20. La Baronne Hemerlingue (Format : PDF)

The Nabob - Chapter 20. La Baronne Hemerlingue

CHAPTER XX. LA BARONNE HEMERLINGUE

Just at the end of the long vault, under which were the offices of Hemerlingue and Sons, the black tunnel which Joyeuse had for ten years adorned and illuminated with his dreams, a monumental staircase with a wrought-iron balustrade, a staircase of mediaeval time, led towards the left to the reception rooms of the baroness, which looked out on the court-yard just above the cashier's office, so that in summer, when the windows were open, the ring of the gold, the crash of the piles of money scattered on the counters, softened a little by the rich and lofty hangings at the windows, made a mercantile accompaniment to the buzzing conversation of fashionable Catholicism.

The entrance struck at once the note of this house, as of her who did the honours of it. A mixture of a vague scent of the sacristy, with the excitement of the Bourse, and the most refined fashion, these heterogeneous elements, met and crossed each other's path there, but remained as much apart as the noble faubourg, under whose patronage the striking conversion of the Moslem had taken place, was from the financial quarters where Hemerlingue had his life and his friends. The Levantine colony--pretty numerous in Paris--was composed in great measure of German Jews, bankers or brokers who had made colossal fortunes in the East, and still did business here, not to lose the habit. The colony showed itself regularly on the baroness's visiting day. Tunisians on a visit to Paris never failed to call on the wife of the great banker; and old Colonel Brahim, _charge d'affaires of the Bey, with his flabby mouth and bloodshot eyes, had his nap every Saturday in the corner of the same divan.

"One seems to smell scorching in your drawing-room, my child," said the old Princess de Dions smilingly to the newly named Marie, whom M. Le Merquier and she had led to the font. But the presence of all these heretics--Jews, Moslems, and even renegades--of these great over-dressed blotched women, loaded with gold and ornaments, veritable bundles of clothes, did not hinder the Faubourg Saint-Germain from visiting, surrounding, and looking after the young convert, the plaything of these noble ladies, a very obedient puppet, whom they showed, whom they took out, and whose evangelical simplicities, so piquant by contrast with her past, they quoted everywhere. Perhaps deep down in the heart of her amiable patronesses a hope lay of meeting in this circle of returned Orientals some new subject for conversion, an occasion for filling the aristocratic Chapel of Missions again with the touching spectacle of one of those adult baptisms which carry one back to the first days of the Faith, far away on the banks of the Jordan; baptisms soon to be followed by a first communion, a confirmation, when baptismal vows are renewed; occasions when a godmother may accompany her godchild, guide the young soul, share in the naive transports of a newly awakened belief, and may also display a choice of toilettes, delicately graduated to the importance of the sentiment of the ceremony. But not every day does it happen that one of the leaders of finance brings to Paris an Armenian slave as his wife.

A slave! That was the blot in the past of this woman from the East, bought in the bazaar of Adrianople for the Emperor of Morocco, then sold, when he died and his harem was dispersed, to the young Bey Ahmed. Hemerlingue had married her when she passed from this new seraglio, but she could not be received at Tunis, where no woman--Moor, Turk or European--would consent to treat a former slave as an equal, on account of a prejudice like that which separates the creoles from the best disguised quadroons. Even in Paris the Hemerlingues found this invincible prejudice among the small foreign colonies, constituted, as they were, of little circles full of susceptibilities and local traditions. Yamina thus passed two or three years in a complete solitude whose leisure and spiteful feelings she well knew how to utilize, for she was an ambitious woman endowed with extraordinary will and persistence. She learned French thoroughly, said farewell to her embroidered vests and pantaloons of red silk, accustomed her figure and her walk to European toilettes, to the inconvenience of long dresses, and then, one night at the opera, showed the astonished Parisians the spectacle, a little uncivilized still, but delicate, elegant, and original, of a Mohammedan in a costume of _Leonard's_.

The sacrifice of her religion soon followed that of her costume. Mme. Hemerlingue had long abandoned the practices of Mohammedan religion, when M. le Merquier, their friend and mentor in Paris, showed them that the baroness's public conversion would open to her the doors of that section of the Parisian world whose access became more and more difficult as society became more democratic. Once the Faubourg Saint-Germain was conquered, all the others would follow. And, in fact, when, after the announcement of the baptism, they learned that the greatest ladies in France could be seen at the Baroness Hemerlingue's Saturdays, Mmes. Gugenheim, Furenberg, Caraiscaki, Maurice Trott--all wives of millionaires celebrated on the markets of Tunis--gave up their prejudices and begged to be invited to the former slave's receptions. Mme. Jansoulet alone--newly arrived with a stock of cumbersome Oriental ideas in her mind, like her ostrich eggs, her narghile pipe, and the Tunisian _bric-a-brac in her rooms--protested against what she called an impropriety, a cowardice, and declared that she would never set her foot at _her house. Soon a little retrograde movement was felt round the Gugenheims, the Caraiscaki, and the other people, as happens at Paris every time when some irregular position, endeavouring to establish itself, brings on regrets and defections. They had gone too far to draw back, but they resolved to make the value of their good-will, of their sacrificed prejudices, felt, and the Baroness Marie well understood the shade of meaning in the protecting tone of the Levantines, treating her as "My dear child," "My dear good girl," with an almost contemptuous pride. Thenceforward her hatred of the Jansoulets knew no bounds--the complicated ferocious hatred of the seraglio, with strangling and the sack at the end, perhaps more difficult to arrive at in Paris than on the banks of the lake of El Bahaira, but for which she had already prepared the stout sack and the cord.

One can imagine, knowing all this, what was the surprise and agitation of this corner of exotic society, when the news spread, not only that the great Afchin--as these ladies called her--had consented to see the baroness, but that she would pay her first visit on her next Saturday. Neither the Fuernbergs nor the Trotts would wish to miss such an occasion. On her side, the baroness did everything in her power to give the utmost brilliancy to this solemn reparation. She wrote, she visited, and succeeded so well, that in spite of the lateness of the season, Mme. Jansoulet, on arriving at four o'clock at the Faubourg Saint-Honore, would have seen drawn up before the great arched doorway, side by side with the discreet russet livery of the Princess de Dion, and of many authentic _blasons_, the pretentious and fictitious arms, the multicoloured wheels of a crowd of plutocrat equipages, and the tall powdered lackeys of the Caraiscaki.

Above, in the reception rooms, was another strange and resplendent crowd. In the first two rooms there was a going and coming, a continual passage of rustling silks up to the boudoir where the baroness sat, sharing her attentions and cajoleries between two very distinct camps. On one side were dark toilettes, modest in appearance, whose refinement was appreciable only to observant eyes; on the other, a wild burst of vivid colour, opulent figures, rich diamonds, floating scarfs, exotic fashions, in which one felt a regret for a warmer climate, and more luxurious life. Here were sharp taps with the fan, discreet whispers from the few men present, some of the _bien pensant youth, silent, immovable, sucking the handles of their canes, two or three figures, upright behind the broad backs of their wives, speaking with their heads bent forward, as if they were offering contraband goods for sale; and in a corner the fine patriarchal beard and violet cassock of an orthodox Armenian bishop.

The baroness, in attempting to harmonize these fashionable diversities, to keep her rooms full until the famous interview, moved about continually, took part in ten different conversations, raising her harmonious and velvety voice to the twittering diapason which distinguishes Oriental women, caressing and coaxing, the mind supple as the body, touching on all subjects, and mixing in the requisite proportions fashion and charity sermons, theatres and bazaars, the dressmaker and the confessor. The mistress of the house united a great personal charm with this acquired science--a science visible even in her black and very simple dress, which brought out her nun-like pallor, her houri-like eyes, her shining and plaited hair drawn back from a narrow, child-like forehead, a forehead of which the small mouth accentuated the mystery, hiding from the inquisitive the former _favourite's whole varied past, she who had no age, who knew not herself the date of her birth, and never remembered to have been a child.

Evidently if the absolute power of evil--rare indeed among women, influenced as they are by their impressionable physical nature by so many different currents--could take possession of a soul, it would be in that of this slave, moulded by basenesses, revolted but patient, and complete mistress of herself, like all those whom the habit of veiling the eyes has accustomed to lie safely and unscrupulously.

At this moment no one could have suspected the anguish she suffered; to see her kneeling before the princess, an old, good, straightforward soul, of whom the Fuernberg was always saying, "Call that a princess--that!"

"I beg of you, godmamma, don't go away yet."

She surrounded her with all sorts of cajoleries, of graces, of little airs, without telling her, to be sure, that she wanted to keep her till the arrival of the Jansoulets, to add to her triumph.

"But," said the princess, pointing out to her the majestic Armenian, silent and grave, his tasselled hat on his knees, "I must take this poor bishop to the _Grand Saint-Christophe_, to buy some medals. He would never get on without me."

"No, no, I wish--you must--a few minutes more." And the baroness threw a furtive look on the ancient and sumptuous clock in a corner of the room.

Five o'clock already, and the great Afchin not arrived. The Levantines began to laugh behind their fans. Happily tea was just being served, also Spanish wines, and a crowd of delicious Turkish cakes which were only to be had in that house, whose receipts, brought away with her by the favourite, had been preserved in the harem, like some secrets of confectionery on our convents. That made a diversion. Hemerlingue, who on Saturdays came out of his office from time to time to make his bow to the ladies, was drinking a glass of Madeira near the little table while talking to Maurice Trott, once the dresser of Said-Pasha, when his wife approached him, gently and quietly. He knew what anger this impenetrable calm must cover, and asked her, in a low tone, timidly:

"No one?"

"No one. You see to what an insult you expose me."

She smiled, her eyes half closed, taking with the end of her nail a crumb of cake from his long black whiskers, but her little transparent nostrils trembled with a terrible eloquence.

"Oh, she will come," said the banker, his mouth full. "I am sure she will come."

The noise of dresses, of a train rustling in the next room made the baroness turn quickly. But, to the great joy of the "bundles," looking on from their corners, it was not the lady they were expecting.

This tall, elegant blonde, with worn features and irreproachable toilette, was not like Mlle. Afchin. She was worthy in every way to bear a name as celebrated as that of Dr. Jenkins. In the last two or three months the beautiful Mme. Jenkins had greatly changed, become much older. In the life of a woman who has long remained young there comes a time when the years, which have passed over her head without leaving a wrinkle, trace their passage all at once brutally in indelible marks. People no longer say, on seeing her, "How beautiful she is!" but "How beautiful she must have been!" And this cruel way of speaking in the past, of throwing back to a distant period that which was but yesterday a visible fact, marks a beginning of old age and of retirement, a change of all her triumphs into memories. Was it the disappointment of seeing the doctor's wife arrive, instead of Mme. Jansoulet, or did the discredit which the Duke de Mora's death had thrown on the fashionable physician fall on her who bore his name? There was a little of each of these reasons, and perhaps of another, in the cool greeting of the baroness. A slight greeting on the ends of her lips, some hurried words, and she returned to the noble battalion nibbling vigorously away. The room had become animated under the effects of wine. People no longer whispered; they talked. The lamps brought in added a new brilliance to the gathering, but announced that it was near its close; some indeed, not interested in the great event, having already taken their leave. And still the Jansoulets did not come.

All at once a heavy, hurried step. The Nabob appeared, alone, buttoned up in his black coat, correctly dressed, but with his face upset, his eyes haggard, still trembling from the terrible scene which he had left.

She would not come.

In the morning he had told the maids to dress madame for three o'clock, as he did each time he took out the Levantine with him, when it was necessary to move this indolent person, who, not being able to accept even any responsibility whatever, left others to think, decide, act for her, going willingly where she was desired to go, once she was started. And it was on this amiability that he counted to take her to Hemerlingue's. But when, after _dejeuner_, Jansoulet dressed, superb, perspiring with the effort to put on gloves, asked if madame would soon be ready, he was told that she was not going out. The matter was grave, so grave, that putting on one side all the intermediaries of valets and maids, which they made use of in their conjugal dialogues, he ran up the stairs four steps at once like a gust of wind, and entered the draperied rooms of the Levantine.

She was still in bed, dressed in that great open tunic of silk of two colours, which the Moors call a _djebba_, and in a little cap embroidered with gold, from which escaped her heavy long black hair, all entangled round her moon-shaped face, flushed from her recent meal. The sleeves of her _djebba pushed back showed two enormous shapeless arms, loaded with bracelets, with long chains wandering through a heap of little mirrors, of red beads, of scent-boxes, of microscopic pipes, of cigarette cases--the childish toyshop collection of a Moorish woman at her rising.

The room, filled with the heavy opium-scented smoke of Turkish tobacco, was in similar disorder. Negresses went and came, slowly removing their mistress's coffee, the favourite gazelle was licking the dregs of a cup which its delicate muzzle had overturned on the carpet, while seated at the foot of the bed with a touching familiarity, the melancholy Cabassu was reading aloud to madame a drama in verse which Cardailhac was shortly going to produce. The Levantine was stupefied with this reading, absolutely astounded.

"My dear," said she to Jansoulet, in her thick Flemish accent, "I don't know what our manager is thinking of. I am just reading this _Revolt_, which he is so mad about. But it is impossible. There is nothing dramatic about it."

"Don't talk to me of the theatre," said Jansoulet, furious, in spite of his respect for the daughter of the Afchins. "What, you are not dressed yet? Weren't you told that we were going out?"

They had told her, but she had begun to read this stupid piece. And with her sleepy air:

"We will go out to-morrow."

"To-morrow! Impossible. We are expected to-day. A most important visit."

"But where?"

He hesitated a second.

"To Hemerlingue's."

She raised her great eyes, thinking he was making game of her. Then he told her of his meeting with the baron at the funeral of de Mora and the understanding they had come to.

"Go there, if you like," said she coldly. "But you little know me if you believe that I, an Afchin, will ever set foot in that slave's house."

Cabassu, prudently seeing what was likely to happen, had fled into a neighbouring room, carrying with him the five acts of _The Revolt under his arm.

"Come," said the Nabob to his wife, "I see that you do not know the terrible position I am in. Listen."

Without thinking of the maids or the negresses, with the sovereign indifference of an Oriental for his household, he proceeded to picture his great distress, his fortune sequestered over seas, his credit destroyed over here, his whole career in suspense before the judgment of the Chamber, the influence of the Hemerlingues on the judge-advocate, and the necessity of the sacrifice at the moment of all personal feeling to such important interests. He spoke hotly, tried to convince her, to carry her away. But she merely answered him, "I shall not go," as if it were only a matter of some unimportant walk, a little too long for her.

He said trembling:

"See, now, it is not possible that you should say that. Think that my fortune is at stake, the future of our children, the name you bear. Everything is at stake in what you cannot refuse to do."

He could have spoken thus for hours and been always met by the same firm, unshakable obstinacy--an Afchin could not visit a slave.

"Well, madame," said he violently, "this slave is worth more than you. She has increased tenfold her husband's wealth by her intelligence, while you, on the contrary----"

For the first time in the twelve years of their married life Jansoulet dared to hold up his head before his wife. Was he ashamed of this crime of _lese-majeste_, or did he understand that such a remark would place an impassable gulf between them? He changed his tone, knelt down before the bed, with that cheerful tenderness when one persuades children to be reasonable.

"My little Martha, I beg of you--get up, dress yourself. It is for your own sake I ask it, for your comfort, for your own welfare. What would become of you if, for a caprice, a stupid whim, we should become poor?"

But the word--poor--represented absolutely nothing to the Levantine. One could speak of it before her, as of death before little children. She was not moved by it, not knowing what it was. She was perfectly determined to keep in bed in her _djebba_; and to show her decision, she lighted a new cigarette at her old one just finished; and while the poor Nabob surrounded his "dear little wife" with excuses, with prayers, with supplications, promising her a diadem of pearls a hundred times more beautiful than her own, if she would come, she watched the heavy smoke rising to the painted ceiling, wrapping herself up in it as in an imperturbable calm. At last, in face of this refusal, this silence, this barrier of headstrong obstinacy, Jansoulet unbridled his wrath and rose up to his full height:

"Come," said he, "I wish it."

He turned to the negresses:

"Dress your mistress at once."

And boor as he was at the bottom, the son of a southern nail-maker asserting itself in this crisis which moved him so deeply, he threw back the coverlids with a brutal and contemptuous gesture, knocking down the innumerable toys they bore, and forcing the half-clad Levantine to bound to her feet with a promptitude amazing in so massive a person. She roared at the outrage, drew the folds of her dalmatic against her bust, pushed her cap sideways on her dishevelled hair, and began to abuse her husband.

"Never, understand me, never! You may drag me sooner to this----"

The filth flowed from her heavy lips as from a spout. Jansoulet could have imagined himself in some frightful den of the port of Marseilles, at some quarrel of prostitutes and bullies, or again at some open-air dispute between Genoese, Maltese, and Provencal hags, gleaning on the quays round the sacks of wheat, and abusing each other, crouched in the whirlwinds of golden dust. She was indeed a Levantine of a seaport, a spoiled child, who, in the evening, left alone, had heard from her terrace or from her gondola the sailors revile each other in every tongue of the Latin seas, and had remembered it all. The wretched man looked at her, frightened, terrified at what she forced him to hear, at her grotesque figure, foaming and gasping:

"No, I will not go--no, I will not go!"

And this was the mother of his children, a daughter of the Afchins! Suddenly, at the thought that his fate was in the hands of this woman, that it would only cost her a dress to put on to save him--and that time was flying--that soon it would be too late, a criminal feeling rose to his brain and distorted his features. He came straight to her, his hands contracted, with such a terrible expression that the daughter of the Afchins, frightened, rushed, calling towards the door by which the _masseur had just gone out:

"Aristide!"

This cry, the words, this intimacy of his wife with a servant! Jansoulet stopped, his rage suddenly calmed; then, with a gesture of disgust, he flung himself out, slamming the doors, more eager to fly the misfortune and the horror whose presence he divined in his own home, than to seek elsewhere the help he had been promised.

A quarter of an hour later he made his appearance at the Hemerlingues', making a despairing gesture as he entered to the banker, and approached the baroness stammering the ready-made phrase he had heard repeated so often the night of his ball, "His wife, very unwell--most grieved not to have been able to come--" She did not give him time to finish, rose slowly, unwound herself like a long and slender snake from the pleated folds of her tight dress, and said, without looking at him, "Oh, I knew--I knew!" then changed her place and took no more notice of him. He attempted to approach Hemerlingue, but the good man seemed absorbed in his conversation with Maurice Trott. Then he went to sit down near Mme. Jenkins, whose isolation seemed like his own. But, even while talking to the poor woman, as languid as he was preoccupied, he was watching the baroness doing the honours of this drawing-room, so comfortable when compared with his own gilded halls.

It was time to leave. Mme. Hemerlingue went to the door with some of the ladies, presented her forehead to the old princess, bent under the benediction of the Armenian bishop, nodded with a smile to the young men with the canes, found for each the fitting adieu with perfect ease; and the wretched man could not prevent himself from comparing this Eastern slave, so Parisian, so distinguished in the best society of the world, with the other, the European brutalized by the East, stupefied with Turkish tobacco, and swollen with idleness. His ambitions, his pride as a husband, were extinguished and humiliated in this marriage of which he saw the danger and the emptiness--a final cruelty of fate taking from him even the refuge of personal happiness from all his public disasters.

Little by little the room was emptied. The Levantines disappeared one after another, leaving each time an immense void in their place. Mme. Jenkins was gone, and only two or three ladies remained whom Jansoulet did not know, and behind whom the mistress of the house seemed to shelter herself from him. But Hemerlingue was free, and the Nabob rejoined him at the moment when he was furtively escaping to his offices on the same floor opposite his rooms. Jansoulet went out with him, forgetting in his trouble to salute the baroness, and once on the antechamber staircase, Hemerlingue, cold and reserved while he was under his wife's eye, expanded a little.

"It is very annoying," said he in a low voice, as if he feared to be overheard, "that Mme. Jansoulet has not been willing to come."

Jansoulet answered him by a movement of despair and savage helplessness.

"Annoying, annoying," repeated the other in a whisper, and feeling for his key in his pocket.

"Come, old fellow," said the Nabob, taking his hand, "there's no reason, because our wives don't agree--That doesn't hinder us from remaining friends. What a good chat the other day, eh?"

"No doubt" said the baron, disengaging himself, as he opened the door noiselessly, showing the deep workroom, whose lamp burned solitarily before the enormous empty chair. "Come, good-bye, I must go; I have my mail to despatch."

"_Ya didon, monci_" (But look here, sir) said the poor Nabob, trying to joke, and using the _patois of the south to recall to his old chum all the pleasant memories stirred up the other evening. "Our visit to Le Merquier still holds good. The picture we were going to present to him, you know. What day?"

"Ah, yes, Le Merquier--true--eh--well, soon. I will write to you."

"Really? You know it is very important."

"Yes, yes. I will write to you. Good-bye."

And the big man shut his door in a hurry, as if he were afraid of his wife coming.

Two days after, the Nabob received a note from Hemerlingue, almost unreadable on account of the complicated scrawls, of abbreviations more or less commercial, under which the ex-sutler hid his entire want of spelling:

MY DEAR OLD COM_--I cannot accom you to Le Mer. _Too bus just now. Besid y will be _bet alone to _tal_. Go _th bold_. You are _exp. A Cassette, _ev morn 8 to 10.

Yours faith

HEM.


Below as a postscript, a very small hand had written very legibly:

"A religious picture, as good as possible."

What was he to think of this letter? Was there real good-will in it, or polite evasion? In any case hesitation was no longer possible. Time pressed. Jansoulet made a bold effort, then--for he was very frightened of Le Merquier--and called on him one morning.

Our strange Paris, alike in its population and its aspects, seems a specimen map of the whole world. In the Marais there are narrow streets, with old sculptured worm-eaten doors, with overhanging gables and balconies, which remind you of old Heidelberg. The Faubourg Saint-Honore, lying round the Russian church with its white minarets and golden domes, seems a part of Moscow. On Montmartre I know a picturesque and crowded corner which is simply Algiers. Little, low, clean houses, each with its brass plate and little front garden, are English streets between Neuilly and the Champs-Elysees while all behind the apse of Saint-Sulpice, the Rue Feron, the Rue Cassette, lying peaceably in the shadow of its great towers, roughly paved, their doors each with its knocker, seem lifted out of some provincial and religious town--Tours or Orleans, for example--in the district of the cathedral or the palace, where the great over-hanging trees in the gardens rock themselves to the sound of the bells and the choir.

It was there, in the neighbourhood of the Catholic Club--of which he had just been made honorary president--that M. Le Merquier lived. He was _avocat_, deputy for Lyons, business man of all the great communities of France; and Hemerlingue, moved by a deep-seated instinct, had intrusted him with the affairs of his firm.

He arrived before nine o'clock at an old mansion of which the ground floor was occupied by a religious bookshop, asleep in the odour of the sacristy, and of the thick gray paper on which the stories of miracles are printed for hawkers, and mounted the great whitewashed convent stairway. Jansoulet was touched by this provincial and Catholic atmosphere, in which revived the souvenirs of his past in the south, impressions of infancy still intact, thanks to his long absence from home; and since his arrival at Paris he had had neither the time nor the occasion to call them in question. Fashionable hypocrisy had presented itself to him in all its forms save that of religious integrity, and he refused now to believe in the venality of a man who lived in such surroundings. Introduced into the _avocat's waiting-room--a vast parlour with fine white muslin curtains, having for its sole ornament a large and beautiful copy of Tintoretto's Dead Christ--his doubt and trouble changed into indignant conviction. It was not possible! He had been deceived as to Le Merquier. There was surely some bold slander in it, such as so easily spreads in Paris--or perhaps it was one of those ferocious snares among which he had stumbled for six months. No, this stern conscience, so well known in Parliament and the courts, this cold and austere personage, could not be treated like those great swollen pashas with loosened waist-belts and floating sleeves open to conceal the bags of gold. He would only expose himself to a scandalous refusal, to the legitimate revolt of outraged honour, if he attempted such means of corruption.

The Nabob told himself all this, as he sat on the oak bench which ran round the room, a bench polished with serge dresses and the rough cloth of cassocks. In spite of the early hour several persons were waiting there with him. A Dominican, ascetic and serene, walking up and down with great strides; two sisters of charity, buried under their caps, counting long rosaries which measured their time of waiting; priests from Lyons, recognisable by the shape of their hats; others reserved and severe in air, sitting at the great ebony table which filled the middle of the room, and turning over some of those pious journals printed at Fouvieres, just above Lyons, the _Echo of Purgatory_, the _Rose-bush of Mary_, which give as a present to all yearly subscribers pontifical indulgences and remissions of future sins. Some muttered words, a stifled cough, the light whispered prayers of the sisters, recalled to Jansoulet the distant and confused sensation of the hours of waiting in the corner of his village church round the confessional on the eves of the great festivals of the Church.

At last his turn came, and if a doubt as to M. Le Merquier had remained, he doubted no longer when he saw this great office, simple and severe, yet a little more ornate than the waiting-room, a fitting frame for the austerity of the lawyer's principles, and for his thin form, tall, stooping, narrow-shouldered, squeezed into a black coat too short in the sleeves, from which protruded two black fists, broad and flat, two sticks of Indian ink with hieroglyphs of great veins. The clerical deputy had, with the leaden hue of a Lyonnese grown mouldy between his two rivers, a certain life of expression which he owed to his double look--sometimes sparkling, but impenetrable behind the glass of his spectacles; more often, vivid, mistrustful, and dark, above these same glasses, surrounded by the shadow which a lifted eye and a stooping head gives the eyebrow.

After a greeting almost cordial in comparison with the cold bow which the two colleagues exchanged at the Chamber, an "I was expecting you" in which perhaps an intention showed itself, the lawyer pointed the Nabob into a seat near his desk, told the smug domestic in black not to come till he was summoned, arranged a few papers, after which, sinking into his arm-chair with the attitude of a man ready to listen, who becomes all ears, his legs crossed, he rested his chin on his hand, with his eyes fixed on a great rep curtain falling to the ground in front of him.

The moment was decisive, the situation embarrassing. Jansoulet did not hesitate. It was one of the poor Nabob's pretensions to know men as well as Mora. And this instinct, which, said he, had never deceived him, warned him that he was at that moment dealing with a rigid and unshakable honesty, a conscience in hard stone, untouchable by pick-axe or powder. "My conscience!" Suddenly he changed his programme, threw to the winds the tricks and equivocations which embarrassed his open and courageous disposition, and, head high and heart open, held to this honest man a language he was born to understand.

"Do not be astonished, my dear colleague,"--his voice trembled, but soon became firm in the conviction of his defence--"do not be astonished if I am come to find you here instead of asking simply to be heard by the third committee. The explanation which I have to make to you is so delicate and confidential that it would have been impossible to make it publicly before my colleagues."

Maitre Le Merquier, above his spectacles, looked at the curtain with a disturbed air. Evidently the conversation was taking an unexpected turn.

"I do not enter on the main question," said the Nabob. "Your report, I am assured, is impartial and loyal, such as your conscience has dictated to you. Only there are some heart-breaking calumnies spread about me to which I have not answered, and which have perhaps influenced the opinion of the committee. It is on this subject that I wish to speak to you. I know the confidence with which you are honoured by your colleagues, M. Le Merquier, and that, when I shall have convinced you, your word will be enough without forcing me to lay bare my distress to them all. You know the accusation--the most terrible, the most ignoble. There are so many people who might be deceived by it. My enemies have given names, dates, addresses. Well, I bring you the proofs of my innocence. I lay them bare before you--you only--for I have grave reasons for keeping the whole affair secret."

Then he showed the lawyer a certificate from the Consulate of Tunis, that during twenty years he had only left the principality twice--the first time to see his dying father at Bourg-Saint Andeol; the second, to make, with the Bey, a visit of three days to his chateau of Saint-Romans.

"How comes it, then, that with a document so conclusive in my hands I have not brought my accusers before the courts to contradict and confound them? Alas, monsieur, there are cruel responsibilities in families. I have a brother, a poor fellow, weak and spoiled, who has for long wallowed in the mud of Paris, who has left there his intelligence and his honour. Has he descended to that degree of baseness which I, in his name, am accused of? I have not dared to find out. All I can say is, that my poor father, who knew more than any one in the family of it, whispered to me in dying, 'Bernard, it is your elder brother who has killed me. I die of shame, my child.'"

He paused, compelled by his suppressed emotion; then:

"My father is dead, Maitre Le Merquier, but my mother still lives, and it is for her sake, for her peace, that I have held back, that I hold back still, before the scandal of my justification. Up to now, in fact, the mud thrown at me has not touched her; it only comes from a certain class, in a special press, a thousand leagues away from the poor woman. But law courts, a trial--it would be proclaiming our misfortune from one end of France to the other, the articles of the official paper reproduced by all the journals, even those of the little district where my mother lives. The calumny, my defence, her two children covered with shame by the one stroke, the name--the only pride of the old peasant--forever disgraced. It would be too much for her. It would be enough to kill her. And truly, I find it enough, too. That is why I have had the courage to be silent, to weary, if I could, my enemies by silence. But I need some one to answer for me in the Chamber. It must not have the right to expel me for reasons which would dishonour me, and since it has chosen you as the chairman of the committee, I am come to tell you everything, as to a confessor, to a priest, begging you not to divulge anything of this conversation, even in the interests of my case. I only ask you, my dear colleague, absolute silence; for the rest, I rely on your justice and your loyalty."

He rose, ready to go, and Le Merquier did not move, still asking the green curtain in front of him, as if seeking inspiration for his answer there. At last he said:

"It shall be as you desire, my dear colleague. This confidence shall remain between us. You have told me nothing, I have heard nothing."

The Nabob, still heated with his burst of confidence, which demanded, it seemed to him, a cordial response, a pressure of the hand, was seized with a strange uneasiness. This coolness, this absent look, so unnerved him that he was at the door with the awkward bow of one who feels himself importunate, when the other stopped him.

"Wait, then, my dear colleague. What a hurry you are in to leave me! A few moments, I beg of you. I am too happy to have a chat with a man like you. Besides, we have more than one common bond. Our friend Hemerlingue has told me that you, too, are much interested in pictures."

Jansoulet trembled. The two words--"Hemerlingue," "pictures"--meeting in the same phrase so unexpectedly, restored all his doubts, all his perplexities. He did not give himself away yet, however, and let Le Merquier advance, word by word, testing the ground for his stumbling advances. People had told him often of the collection of his honourable colleague. "Would it be indiscreet to ask the favour of being admitted, to--"

"On the contrary, I should feel much honoured," said the Nabob, tickled in the most sensible--since the most costly--point of his vanity; and looking round him at the walls of the room, he added with the tone of a connoisseur, "You have some fine things, too."

"Oh," said the other modestly, "just a few canvases. Painting is so dear now, it is a taste so difficult to satisfy, a true passion _de luxe_--a passion for a Nabob," said he, smiling, with a furtive look over his glasses.

They were two prudent players, face to face; but Jansoulet was a little astray in this new situation, where he who only knew how to be bold, had to be on his guard.

"When I think," murmured the lawyer, "that I have been ten years covering these walls, and that I have still this panel to fill."

In fact, at the most conspicuous place on the wall there was an empty place, emptied rather, for a great gold-headed nail near the ceiling showed the visible, almost clumsy, trace of a snare laid for the poor simpleton, who let himself be taken in it so foolishly.

"My dear M. Le Merquier," said he with his engaging, good-natured voice, "I have a Virgin of Tintoretto's just the size of your panel."

Impossible to read anything in the eyes of the lawyer, this time hidden under their overhanging brows.

"Permit me to hang it there, opposite your table. That will help you to think sometimes of me."

"And to soften the severities of my report, too, sir?" cried Le Merquier, formidable and upright, his hand on the bell. "I have seen many shameless things in my life, but never anything like this. Such offers to me, in my own house!"

"But, my dear colleague, I swear to you----"

"Show him out," said the lawyer to the hang-dog servant who had just entered; and from the middle of his office, whose door remained open, before all the waiting-room, where the paternosters were silent, he pursued Jansoulet--who slunk off murmuring excuses to the door--with these terrible words:

"You have outraged the honour of the Chamber in my person, sir. Our colleagues shall be informed of it this very day; and, this crime coming after your others, you will learn to your cost that Paris is not the East, and that here we do not make shameless traffic of the human conscience."

Then, after having chased the seller from the temple, the just man closed his door, and approaching the mysterious green curtain, said in a tone that sounded soft amidst his pretended anger:

"Is that what you wanted, Baroness Marie?"

If you like this book please share to your friends :
NEXT BOOKS

The Nabob - Chapter 21. The Sitting The Nabob - Chapter 21. The Sitting

The Nabob - Chapter 21. The Sitting
CHAPTER XXI. THE SITTINGThat morning there were no guests to lunch at 32 Place Vendome, so that towards one o'clock might have been seen the majestic form of M. Barreau, gleaming white at the gate, among four or five of his scullions in their cook's caps, and as many stable-boys in Scotch caps--an imposing group, which gave to the house the aspect of an hotel where the staff was taking the air between the arrivals of the trains. To complete the resemblance, a cab drew up before the door and the driver took down an old leather trunk, while a tall
PREVIOUS BOOKS

The Nabob - Chapter 19. The Funeral The Nabob - Chapter 19. The Funeral

The Nabob - Chapter 19. The Funeral
CHAPTER XIX. THE FUNERAL"Don't weep, my fairy, you rob me of all my courage. Come, you will be a great deal happier when you no longer have your terrible demon. You will go back to Fontainebleau and look after your chickens. The ten thousand francs from Brahim will help to get you settled down. And then, don't be afraid, once you are over there I shall send you money. Since this Bey wants to have sculpture done by me, he will have to pay for it, as you may imagine. I shall return rich, rich. Who knows? Perhaps a sultana." "Yes,
NEXT 10 BOOKS | PREVIOUS 10 BOOKS | RANDOM 10 BOOKS
LEAVE A COMMENT