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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFruitfulness - Chapter 3
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Fruitfulness - Chapter 3 Post by :vision Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :3459

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Fruitfulness - Chapter 3


AT the works during the afternoon Mathieu, who wished to be free earlier than usual in order that, before dining in town, he might call upon his landlord, in accordance with his promise to Marianne, found himself so busy that he scarcely caught sight of Beauchene. This was a relief, for the secret which he had discovered by chance annoyed him, and he feared lest he might cause his employer embarrassment. But the latter, when they exchanged a few passing words, did not seem to remember even that there was any cause for shame on his part. He had never before shown himself more active, more devoted to business. The fatigue he had felt in the morning had passed away, and he talked and laughed like one who finds life very pleasant, and has no fear whatever of hard work.

As a rule Mathieu left at six o'clock; but that day he went into Morange's office at half-past five to receive his month's salary. This rightly amounted to three hundred and fifty francs; but as five hundred had been advanced to him in January, which he paid back by instalments of fifty, he now received only fifteen louis, and these he pocketed with such an air of satisfaction that the accountant commented on it.

"Well," said the young fellow, "the money's welcome, for I left my wife with just thirty sous this morning."

It was already more than six o'clock when he found himself outside the superb house which the Seguin du Hordel family occupied in the Avenue d'Antin. Seguin's grandfather had been a mere tiller of the soil at Janville. Later on, his father, as a contractor for the army, had made a considerable fortune. And he, son of a parvenu, led the life of a rich, elegant idler. He was a member of the leading clubs, and, while passionately fond of horses, affected also a taste for art and literature, going for fashion's sake to extreme opinions. He had proudly married an almost portionless girl of a very ancient aristocratic race, the last of the Vaugelades, whose blood was poor and whose mind was narrow. Her mother, an ardent Catholic, had only succeeded in making of her one who, while following religious practices, was eager for the joys of the world. Seguin, since his marriage, had likewise practised religion, because it was fashionable to do so. His peasant grandfather had had ten children; his father, the army contractor, had been content with six; and he himself had two, a boy and a girl, and deemed even that number more than was right.

One part of Seguin's fortune consisted of an estate of some twelve hundred acres--woods and heaths--above Janville, which his father had purchased with some of his large gains after retiring from business. The old man's long-caressed dream had been to return in triumph to his native village, whence he had started quite poor, and he was on the point of there building himself a princely residence in the midst of a vast park when death snatched him away. Almost the whole of this estate had come to Seguin in his share of the paternal inheritance, and he had turned the shooting rights to some account by dividing them into shares of five hundred francs value, which his friends eagerly purchased. The income derived from this source was, however, but a meagre one. Apart from the woods there was only uncultivated land on the estate, marshes, patches of sand, and fields of stones; and for centuries past the opinion of the district had been that no agriculturist could ever turn the expanse to good account. The defunct army contractor alone had been able to picture there a romantic park, such as he had dreamt of creating around his regal abode. It was he, by the way, who had obtained an authorization to add to the name of Seguin that of Du Hordel--taken from a ruined tower called the Hordel which stood on the estate.

It was through Beauchene, one of the shareholders of the shooting rights, that Mathieu had made Seguin's acquaintance, and had discovered the old hunting-box, the lonely, quiet pavilion, which had pleased him so much that he had rented it. Valentine, who good-naturedly treated Marianne as a poor friend, had even been amiable enough to visit her there, and had declared the situation of the place to be quite poetical, laughing the while over her previous ignorance of it like one who had known nothing of her property. In reality she herself would not have lived there for an hour. Her husband had launched her into the feverish life of literary, artistic, and social Paris, hurrying her to gatherings, studios, exhibitions, theatres, and other pleasure resorts--all those brasier-like places where weak heads and wavering hearts are lost. He himself, amid all his passion for show, felt bored to death everywhere, and was at ease only among his horses; and this despite his pretensions with respect to advanced literature and philosophy, his collections of curios, such as the bourgeois of to-day does not yet understand, his furniture, his pottery, his pewter-work, and particularly his bookbindings, of which he was very proud. And he was turning his wife into a copy of himself, perverting her by his extravagant opinions and his promiscuous friendships, so that the little devotee who had been confided to his keeping was now on the high road to every kind of folly. She still went to mass and partook of the holy communion; but she was each day growing more and more familiar with wrong-doing. A disaster must surely be at the end of it all, particularly as he foolishly behaved to her in a rough, jeering way, which greatly hurt her feelings, and led her to dream of being loved with gentleness.

When Mathieu entered the house, which displayed eight lofty windows on each of the stories of its ornate Renaissance facade, he laughed lightly as he thought: "These folks don't have to wait for a monthly pittance of three hundred francs, with just thirty sous in hand."

The hall was extremely rich, all bronze and marble. On the right hand were the dining-room and two drawing-rooms; on the left a billiard-room, a smoking-room, and a winter garden. On the first floor, in front of the broad staircase, was Seguin's so-called "cabinet," a vast apartment, sixteen feet high, forty feet long, and six-and-twenty feet wide, which occupied all the central part of the house; while the husband's bed and dressing rooms were on the right, and those of the wife and children on the left hand. Up above, on the second floor, two complete suites of rooms were kept in reserve for the time when the children should have grown up.

A footman, who knew Mathieu, at once took him upstairs to the cabinet and begged him to wait there, while Monsieur finished dressing. For a moment the visitor fancied himself alone and glanced round the spacious room, feeling interested in its adornments, the lofty windows of old stained glass, the hangings of old Genoese velvet and brocaded silk, the oak bookcases showing the highly ornamented backs of the volumes they contained; the tables laden with bibelots, bronzes, marbles, goldsmith's work, glass work, and the famous collection of modern pewter-work. Then Eastern carpets were spread out upon all sides; there were low seats and couches for every mood of idleness, and cosy nooks in which one could hide oneself behind fringes of lofty plants.

"Oh! so it's you, Monsieur Froment," suddenly exclaimed somebody in the direction of the table allotted to the pewter curios. And thereupon a tall young man of thirty, whom a screen had hitherto hidden from Mathieu's view, came forward with outstretched hand.

"Ah!" said Mathieu, after a moment's hesitation, "Monsieur Charles Santerre."

This was but their second meeting. They had found themselves together once before in that same room. Charles Santerre, already famous as a novelist, a young master popular in Parisian drawing-rooms, had a fine brow, caressing brown eyes, and a large red mouth which his moustache and beard, cut in the Assyrian style and carefully curled, helped to conceal. He had made his way, thanks to women, whose society he sought under pretext of studying them, but whom he was resolved to use as instruments of fortune. As a matter of calculation and principle he had remained a bachelor and generally installed himself in the nests of others. In literature feminine frailty was his stock subject he had made it his specialty to depict scenes of guilty love amid elegant, refined surroundings. At first he had no illusions as to the literary value of his works; he had simply chosen, in a deliberate way, what he deemed to be a pleasant and lucrative trade. But, duped by his successes, he had allowed pride to persuade him that he was really a writer. And nowadays he posed as the painter of an expiring society, professing the greatest pessimism, and basing a new religion on the annihilation of human passion, which annihilation would insure the final happiness of the world.

"Seguin will be here in a moment," he resumed in an amiable way. "It occurred to me to take him and his wife to dine at a restaurant this evening, before going to a certain first performance where there will probably be some fisticuffs and a rumpus to-night."

Mathieu then for the first time noticed that Santerre was in evening dress. They continued chatting for a moment, and the novelist called attention to a new pewter treasure among Seguin's collection. It represented a long, thin woman, stretched full-length, with her hair streaming around her. She seemed to be sobbing as she lay there, and Santerre declared the conception to be a masterpiece. The figure symbolized the end of woman, reduced to despair and solitude when man should finally have made up his mind to have nothing further to do with her. It was the novelist who, in literary and artistic matters, helped on the insanity which was gradually springing up in the Seguins' home.

However, Seguin himself now made his appearance. He was of the same age as Santerre, but was taller and slimmer, with fair hair, an aquiline nose, gray eyes, and thin lips shaded by a slight moustache. He also was in evening dress.

"Ah! well, my dear fellow," said he with the slight lisp which he affected, "Valentine is determined to put on a new gown. So we must be patient; we shall have an hour to wait."

Then, on catching sight of Mathieu, he began to apologize, evincing much politeness and striving to accentuate his air of frigid distinction. When the young man, whom he called his amiable tenant, had acquainted him with the motive of his visit--the leak in the zinc roof of the little pavilion at Janville--he at once consented to let the local plumber do any necessary soldering. But when, after fresh explanations, he understood that the roofing was so worn and damaged that it required to be changed entirely, he suddenly departed from his lofty affability and began to protest, declaring that he could not possibly expend in such repairs a sum which would exceed the whole annual rental of six hundred francs.

"Some soldering," he repeated; "some soldering; it's understood. I will write to the plumber." And wishing to change the subject he added: "Oh! wait a moment, Monsieur Froment. You are a man of taste, I know, and I want to show you a marvel."

He really had some esteem for Mathieu, for he knew that the young fellow possessed a quick appreciative mind. Mathieu began to smile, outwardly yielding to this attempt to create a diversion, but determined at heart that he would not leave the place until he had obtained the promise of a new roof. He took hold of a book, clad in a marvellous binding, which Seguin had fetched from a bookcase and tendered with religious care. On the cover of soft snow-white leather was incrusted a long silver lily, intersected by a tuft of big violet thistles. The title of the work, "Beauty Imperishable," was engraved up above, as in a corner of the sky.

"Ah! what a delightful conception, what delightful coloring!" declared Mathieu, who was really charmed. "Some bindings nowadays are perfect gems." Then he noticed the title: "Why, it's Monsieur Santerre's last novel!" said he.

Seguin smiled and glanced at the writer, who had drawn near. And when he saw him examining the book and looking quite moved by the compliment paid to it, he exclaimed: "My dear fellow, the binder brought it here this morning, and I was awaiting an opportunity to surprise you with it. It is the pearl of my collection! What do you think of the idea--that lily which symbolizes triumphant purity, and those thistles, the plants which spring up among ruins, and which symbolize the sterility of the world, at last deserted, again won over to the only perfect felicity? All your work lies in those symbols, you know."

"Yes, yes. But you spoil me; you will end by making me proud."

Mathieu had read Santerre's novel, having borrowed a copy of it from Mme. Beauchene, in order that his wife might see it, since it was a book that everybody was talking of. And the perusal of it had exasperated him. Forsaking the customary bachelor's flat where in previous works he had been so fond of laying scenes of debauchery, Santerre had this time tried to rise to the level of pure art and lyrical symbolism. The story he told was one of a certain Countess Anne-Marie, who, to escape a rough-mannered husband of extreme masculinity, had sought a refuge in Brittany in the company of a young painter endowed with divine inspiration, one Norbert, who had undertaken to decorate a convent chapel with paintings that depicted his various visions. And for thirty years he went on painting there, ever in colloquy with the angels, and ever having Anne-Marie beside him. And during those thirty years of love the Countess's beauty remained unimpaired; she was as young and as fresh at the finish as at the outset; whereas certain secondary personages, introduced into the story, wives and mothers of a neighboring little town, sank into physical and mental decay, and monstrous decrepitude. Mathieu considered the author's theory that all physical beauty and moral nobility belonged to virgins only, to be thoroughly imbecile, and he could not restrain himself from hinting his disapproval of it.

Both Santerre and Seguin, however, hotly opposed him, and quite a discussion ensued. First Santerre took up the matter from a religious standpoint. Said he, the words of the Old Testament, "Increase and multiply," were not to be found in the New Testament, which was the true basis of the Christian religion. The first Christians, he declared, had held marriage in horror, and with them the Holy Virgin had become the ideal of womanhood. Seguin thereupon nodded approval and proceeded to give his opinions on feminine beauty. But these were hardly to the taste of Mathieu, who promptly pointed out that the conception of beauty had often varied.

"To-day," said he, "you conceive beauty to consist in a long, slim, attenuated, almost angular figure; but at the time of the Renaissance the type of the beautiful was very different. Take Rubens, take Titian, take even Raffaelle, and you will see that their women were of robust build. Even their Virgin Marys have a motherly air. To my thinking, moreover, if we reverted to some such natural type of beauty, if women were not encouraged by fashion to compress and attenuate their figures so that their very nature, their very organism is changed, there would perhaps be some hope of coping with the evil of depopulation which is talked about so much nowadays."

The others looked at him and smiled with an air of compassionate superiority. "Depopulation an evil!" exclaimed Seguin; "can you, my dear sir, intelligent as you are, still believe in that hackneyed old story? Come, reflect and reason a little."

Then Santerre chimed in, and they went on talking one after the other and at times both together. Schopenhauer and Hartmann and Nietzsche were passed in review, and they claimed Malthus as one of themselves. But all this literary pessimism did not trouble Mathieu. He, with his belief in fruitfulness, remained convinced that the nation which no longer had faith in life must be dangerously ill. True, there were hours when he doubted the expediency of numerous families and asked himself if ten thousand happy people were not preferable to a hundred thousand unhappy ones; in which connection political and economic conditions had to be taken into account. But when all was said, he remained almost convinced that the Malthusian hypotheses would prove as false in the future as they had proved false in the past.

"Moreover," said he, "even if the world should become densely populated, even if food supplies, such as we know them, should fall short, chemistry would extract other means of subsistence from inorganic matter. And, besides, all such eventualities are so far away that it is impossible to make any calculation on a basis of scientific certainty. In France, too, instead of contributing to any such danger, we are going backward, we are marching towards annihilation. The population of France was once a fourth of the population of Europe, but now it is only one-eighth. In a century or two Paris will be dead, like ancient Athens and ancient Rome, and we shall have fallen to the rank that Greece now occupies. Paris seems determined to die."

But Santerre protested: "No, no; Paris simply wishes to remain stationary, and it wishes this precisely because it is the most intelligent, most highly civilized city in the world. The more nations advance in civilization the smaller becomes their birth-rate. We are simply giving the world an example of high culture, superior intelligence, and other nations will certainly follow that example when in turn they also attain to our state of perfection. There are signs of this already on every side."

"Quite so!" exclaimed Seguin, backing up his friend. "The phenomenon is general; all the nations show the same symptoms, and are decreasing in numbers, or will decrease as soon as they become civilized. Japan is affected already, and the same will be the case with China as soon as Europe forces open the door there."

Mathieu had become grave and attentive since the two society men, seated before him in evening dress, had begun to talk more rationally. The pale, slim, flat virgin, their ideal of feminine beauty, was no longer in question. The history of mankind was passing by. And almost as if communing with himself, he said: "So you do not fear the Yellow Peril, that terrible swarming of Asiatic barbarians who, it was said, would at some fatal moment sweep down on our Europe, ravage it, and people it afresh? In past ages, history always began anew in that fashion, by the sudden shifting of oceans, the invasion of fierce rough races coming to endow weakened nations with new blood. And after each such occurrence civilization flowered afresh, more broadly and freely than ever. How was it that Babylon, Nineveh, and Memphis fell into dust with their populations, who seem to have died on the spot? How is it that Athens and Rome still agonize to-day, unable to spring afresh from their ashes and renew the splendor of their ancient glory? How is it that death has already laid its hand upon Paris, which, whatever her splendor, is but the capital of a France whose virility is weakened? You may argue as you please and say that, like the ancient capitals of the world, Paris is dying of an excess of culture, intelligence, and civilization; it is none the less a fact that she is approaching death, the turn of the tide which will carry splendor and power to some new nation. Your theory of equilibrium is wrong. Nothing can remain stationary; whatever ceases to grow, decreases and disappears. And if Paris is bent on dying, she will die, and the country with her."

"Well, for my part," declared Santerre, resuming the pose of an elegant pessimist, "if she wishes to die, I shan't oppose her. In fact, I'm fully determined to help her."

"It is evident that the really honest, sensible course is to check any increase of population," added Seguin.

But Mathieu, as if he had not heard them, went on: "I know Herbert Spencer's law, and I believe it to be theoretically correct. It is certain that civilization is a check to fruitfulness, so that one may picture a series of social evolutions conducing now to decrease and now to increase of population, the whole ending in final equilibrium, by the very effect of culture's victory when the world shall be entirely populated and civilized. But who can foretell what road will be followed, through what disasters and sufferings one may have to go? More and more nations may disappear, and others may replace them; and how many thousands of years may not be needed before the final adjustment, compounded of truth, justice, and peace, is arrived at? At the thought of this the mind trembles and hesitates, and the heart contracts with a pang."

Deep silence fell while he thus remained disturbed, shaken in his faith in the good powers of life, and at a loss as to who was right--he or those two men so languidly stretched out before him.

But Valentine, Seguin's wife, came in, laughing and making an exhibition of masculine ways, which it had cost her much trouble to acquire.

"Ah! you people; you must not bear me any malice, you know. That girl Celeste takes such a time over everything!"

At five-and-twenty Valentine was short, slight, and still girlish. Fair, with a delicate face, laughing blue eyes, and a pert little nose, she could not claim to be pretty. Still she was charming and droll, and very free and easy in her ways; for not only did her husband take her about with him to all sorts of objectionable places, but she had become quite familiar with the artists and writers who frequented the house. Thus it was only in the presence of something extremely insulting that she again showed herself the last of the Vaugelades, and would all at once draw herself up and display haughty contempt and frigidity.

"Ah! it's you, Monsieur Froment," she said amiably, stepping towards Mathieu and shaking his hand in cavalier fashion. "Is Madame Froment in good health? Are the children flourishing as usual?"

Seguin was examining her dress, a gown of white silk trimmed with unbleached lace, and he suddenly gave way to one of those horribly rude fits which burst forth at times amid all his great affectation of politeness. "What! have you kept us waiting all this time to put that rag on? Well, you never looked a greater fright in your life!"

And she had entered the room convinced that she looked charming! She made an effort to control herself, but her girlish face darkened and assumed an expression of haughty, vindictive revolt. Then she slowly turned her eyes towards the friend who was present, and who was gazing at her with ecstasy, striving to accentuate the slavish submissiveness of his attitude.

"You look delicious!" he murmured; "that gown is a marvel."

Seguin laughed and twitted Santerre on his obsequiousness towards women. Valentine, mollified by the compliment, soon recovered her birdlike gayety, and such free and easy conversation ensued between the trio that Mathieu felt both stupefied and embarrassed. In fact, he would have gone off at once had it not been for his desire to obtain from his landlord a promise to repair the pavilion properly.

"Wait another moment," Valentine at last said to her husband; "I told Celeste to bring the children, so that we might kiss them before starting."

Mathieu wished to profit by this fresh delay, and sought to renew his request; but Valentine was already rattling on again, talking of dining at the most disreputable restaurant possible, and asking if at the first performance which they were to attend they would see all the horrors which had been hissed at the dress rehearsal the night before. She appeared like a pupil of the two men between whom she stood. She even went further in her opinions than they did, displaying the wildest pessimism, and such extreme views on literature and art that they themselves could not forbear laughing. Wagner was greatly over-estimated, in her opinion; she asked for invertebrate music, the free harmony of the passing wind. As for her moral views, they were enough to make one shudder. She had got past the argumentative amours of Ibsen's idiotic, rebellious heroines, and had now reached the theory of pure intangible beauty. She deemed Santerre's last creation, Anne-Marie, to be far too material and degraded, because in one deplorable passage the author remarked that Norbert's kisses had left their trace on the Countess's brow. Santerre disputed the quotation, whereupon she rushed upon the volume and sought the page to which she had referred.

"But I never degraded her," exclaimed the novelist in despair. "She never has a child."

"Pooh! What of that?" exclaimed Valentine. "If Anne-Marie is to raise our hearts she ought to be like spotless marble, and Norbert's kisses should leave no mark upon her."

But she was interrupted, for Celeste, the maid, a tall dark girl with an equine head, big features, and a pleasant air, now came in with the two children. Gaston was at this time five years old, and Lucie was three. Both were slight and delicate, pale like roses blooming in the shade. Like their mother, they were fair. The lad's hair was inclined to be carroty, while that of the girl suggested the color of oats. And they also had their mother's blue eyes, but their faces were elongated like that of their father. Dressed in white, with their locks curled, arrayed indeed in the most coquettish style, they looked like big fragile dolls. The parents were touched in their worldly pride at sight of them, and insisted on their playing their parts with due propriety.

"Well, don't you wish anybody good evening?"

The children were not timid; they were already used to society and looked visitors full in the face. If they made little haste, it was because they were naturally indolent and did not care to obey. They at last made up their minds and allowed themselves to be kissed.

"Good evening, good friend Santerre."

Then they hesitated before Mathieu, and their father had to remind them of the gentleman's name, though they had already seen him on two or three occasions.

"Good evening, Monsieur Froment."

Valentine took hold of them, sat them on her lap, and half stifled them with caresses. She seemed to adore them, but as soon as she had sat them down again she forgot all about them.

"So you are going out again, mamma?" asked the little boy.

"Why, yes, my darling. Papas and mammas, you know, have their affairs to see to."

"So we shall have dinner all alone, mamma?"

Valentine did not answer, but turned towards the maid, who was waiting for orders;--

"You are not to leave them for a moment, Celeste--you hear? And, above all things, they are not to go into the kitchen. I can never come home without finding them in the kitchen. It is exasperating. Let them have their dinner at seven, and put them to bed at nine. And see that they go to sleep."

The big girl with the equine head listened with an air of respectful obedience, while her faint smile expressed the cunning of a Norman peasant who had been five years in Paris already and was hardened to service, and well knew what was done with children when the master and mistress were absent.

"Madame," she said in a simple way, "Mademoiselle Lucie is poorly. She has been sick again."

"What? sick again!" cried the father in a fury. "I am always hearing of that! They are always being sick! And it always happens when we are going out! It is very disagreeable, my dear; you might see to it; you ought not to let our children have papier-mache stomachs!"

The mother made an angry gesture, as if to say that she could not help it. As a matter of fact, the children were often poorly. They had experienced every childish ailment, they were always catching cold or getting feverish. And they preserved the mute, moody, and somewhat anxious demeanor of children who are abandoned to the care of servants.

"Is it true you were poorly, my little Lucie?" asked Valentine, stooping down to the child. "You aren't poorly now, are you? No, no, it's nothing, nothing at all. Kiss me, my pet; bid papa good night very prettily, so that he may not feel worried in leaving you."

She rose up, already tranquillized and gay again; and, noticing that Mathieu was looking at her, she exclaimed:

"Ah! these little folks give one a deal of worry. But one loves them dearly all the same, though, so far as there is happiness in life, it would perhaps be better for them never to have been born. However, my duty to the country is done. Each wife ought to have a boy and a girl as I have."

Thereupon Mathieu, seeing that she was jesting, ventured to say with a laugh:

"Well, that isn't the opinion of your medical man, Dr. Boutan. He declares that to make the country prosperous every married couple ought to have four children."

"Four children! He's mad!" cried Seguin. And again with the greatest freedom of language he brought forward his pet theories. There was a world of meaning in his wife's laughter while Celeste stood there unmoved and the children listened without understanding. But at last Santerre led the Seguins away. It was only in the hall that Mathieu obtained from his landlord a promise that he would write to the plumber at Janville and that the roof of the pavilion should be entirely renovated, since the rain came into the bedrooms.

The Seguins' landau was waiting at the door. When they had got into it with their friend, it occurred to Mathieu to raise his eyes; and at one of the windows he perceived Celeste standing between the two children, intent, no doubt, on assuring herself that Monsieur and Madame were really going. The young man recalled Reine's departure from her parents; but here both Lucie and Gaston remained motionless, gravely mournful, and neither their father nor their mother once thought of looking up at them.

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Fruitfulness - Chapter 4 Fruitfulness - Chapter 4

Fruitfulness - Chapter 4
CHAPTER IVAT half-past seven o'clock, when Mathieu arrived at the restaurant on the Place de la Madeleine where he was to meet his employer, he found him already there, drinking a glass of madeira with his customer, M. Firon-Badinier. The dinner was a remarkable one; choice viands and the best wines were served in abundance. But Mathieu was struck less by the appetite which the others displayed than by Beauchene's activity and skill. Glass in hand, never losing a bite, he had already persuaded his customer, by the time the roast arrived, to order not only the new thresher but also

Fruitfulness - Chapter 2 Fruitfulness - Chapter 2

Fruitfulness - Chapter 2
CHAPTER IIMORANGE, the chief accountant at Beauchene's works, was a man of thirty-eight, bald and already gray-headed, but with a superb dark, fan-shaped beard, of which he was very proud. His full limpid eyes, straight nose, and well-shaped if somewhat large mouth had in his younger days given him the reputation of being a handsome fellow. He still took great care of himself, invariably wore a tall silk hat, and preserved the correct appearance of a very painstaking and well-bred clerk. "You don't know our new flat yet, do you?" he asked Mathieu as he led him away. "Oh! it's perfect,