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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nabob - Chapter 13. A Day Of Spleen
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The Nabob - Chapter 13. A Day Of Spleen Post by :mlhays Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :3154

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The Nabob - Chapter 13. A Day Of Spleen

CHAPTER XIII. A DAY OF SPLEEN

Five o'clock in the afternoon. Rain since morning and a gray sky low enough to be reached with an umbrella; the close weather which sticks. Mess, mud, nothing but mud, in heavy puddles, in shining trails in the gutters, vainly chased by the street-scrapers and the scavengers, heaved into enormous carts which carry it slowly towards Montreuil--promenading it in triumph through the streets, always moving, and always springing up again, growing through the pavements, splashing the panels of the carriages, the breasts of the horses, the clothes of the passers-by, spattering the windows, the door-steps, the shop-fronts, till one feared that the whole of Paris would sink and disappear under this sorrowful, miry soil where everything dissolves and is lost in mud. And it moves one to pity to see the invasion of this dirt on the whiteness of the new houses, on the parapets of the quays, and on the colonnades of the stone balconies. There is some one, however, who rejoices at the sight, a poor, sick, weary being, lying all her length on a silk-embroidered divan, her chin on her clinched fists. She is looking out gladly through the dripping windows and delighting in all the ugliness.

"Look, my fairy! this is indeed the weather I wanted to-day. See them draggling along! Aren't they hideous? Aren't they dirty? What mire! It is everywhere--in the streets, on the quays, right down to the Seine, right up to the heavens. I tell you, mud is good when one is sad. I would like to play in it, to make sculpture with it--a statue a hundred feet high, that should be called 'My weariness.'"

"But why are you so miserable, dearest?" said the old dancer gently, amiable and pink, and sitting straight in her seat for fear of disarranging her hair, which was even more carefully dressed than usual. "Haven't you everything to make you happy?" And for the hundredth time she enumerated in her tranquil voice the reasons for her happiness: her glory, her genius, her beauty, all the men at her feet, the handsomest, the greatest--oh! yes, the very greatest, as this very day--But a terrible howl, like the heart-rending cry of the jackal exasperated by the monotony of his desert, suddenly made all the studio windows shake, and frightened the old and startled little chrysalis back into her cocoon.

A week ago, Felicia's group was finished and sent to the exhibition, leaving her in a state of nervous prostration, moral sickness, and distressful exasperation. It needs all the tireless patience of the fairy, all the magic of her memories constantly evoked, to make life supportable beside this restlessness, this wicked anger, which growls beneath the girl's long silences and suddenly bursts out in a bitter word or in an "Ugh!" of disgust at everything. All the critics are asses. The public? An immense goitre with three rows of chains. And yet, the other Sunday, when the Duc de Mora came with the superintendent of the art section to see her exhibits in the studio, she was so happy, so proud of the praise they gave her, so fully delighted with her own work, which she admired from the outside, as though the work of some one else, now that her tools no longer created between her and her work that bond which makes impartial judgment so hard for the artist.

But it is like this every year. The studio stripped of her recent work, her glorious name once again thrown to the unexpected caprice of the public, Felicia's thoughts, now without a visible object, stray in the emptiness of her heart and in the hollowness of her life--that of the woman who leaves the quiet groove--until she be engrossed in some new work. She shuts herself up and will see no one, as though she mistrusted herself. Jenkins is the only person who can help her during these attacks. He seems even to court them, as though he expected something therefrom. She is not pleasant with him, all the same, goodness knows. Yesterday, even, he stayed for hours beside this wearied beauty without her speaking to him once. If that be the welcome she is keeping for the great personage who is doing them the honour of dining with them--Here the good Crenmitz, who is quietly turning over all these thoughts as she gazes at the bows on the pointed toes of her slippers, remembers that she has promised to make a dish of Viennese cakes for the dinner of the personage in question, and goes out of the studio, silently, on the tips of her little feet.

The rain falls, the mud deepens; the beautiful sphinx lies still, her eyes lost in the dull horizon. What is she thinking of? What does she see coming there, over those filthy roads, in the falling night, that her lip should take that curve of disgust and her brow that frown? Is she waiting for her fate? A sad fate, that sets forth in such weather, fearless of the darkness and the dirt.

Some one comes into the studio with a heavier tread than the mouse-like step of Constance--the little servant, doubtless; and, without looking round, Felicia says roughly, "Go away! I don't want any one in."

"I should have liked to speak to you very much, all the same," says a friendly voice.

She starts, sits up. Mollified and almost smiling at this unexpected visitor, she says:

"What--you, young Minerva! How did you get in?"

"Very easily. All the doors are open."

"I am not surprised. Constance is crazy, since this morning, over her dinner."

"Yes, I saw. The anteroom is full of flowers. Who is coming?"

"Oh! a stupid dinner--an official dinner. I don't know how I could--Sit down here, near me. I am so glad to see you."

Paul sat down, a little disturbed. She had never seemed to him so beautiful. In the dusk of the studio, amid the shadowy brilliance of the works of art, bronzes, and tapestries, her pallor was like a soft light, her eyes shone like precious stones, and her long, close-fitting gown revealed the unrestraint of her goddess-like body. Then, she spoke so affectionately, she seemed so happy because he had come. Why had he stayed away so long? It was almost a month since they had seen him. Were they no longer friends? He excused himself as best he could--business, a journey. Besides, if he hadn't been there, he had often spoken of her--oh, very often, almost every day.

"Really? And with whom?"

"With----"

He was going to say "With Aline Joyeuse," but a feeling of restraint stopped him, an undefinable sentiment, a sense of shame at pronouncing her name in the studio which had heard so many others. There are things that do not go together, one scarcely knows why. Paul preferred to reply with a falsehood, which brought him at once to the object of his visit.

"With an excellent fellow to whom you have given very unnecessary pain. Come, why have you not finished the poor Nabob's bust? It was a great joy to him, such a very proud thing for him, to have that bust in the exhibition. He counted upon it."

At the Nabob's name she was slightly troubled.

"It is true," she said, "I broke my word. But what do you expect? I am made of caprice. See, the cover is over it; all wet, so that the clay does not harden."

"And the accident? You know, we didn't believe in it."

"Then you were wrong. I never lie. It had a fall, a most awful upset; only the clay was fresh, and I easily repaired it. Look!"

With a sweeping gesture she lifted the cover. The Nabob suddenly appeared before them, his jolly face beaming with the pleasure of being portrayed; so like, so tremendously himself, that Paul gave a cry of admiration.

"Isn't it good?" she said artlessly. "Still a few touches here and there--" She had taken the chisel and the little sponge and pushed the stand into what remained of the daylight. "It could be done in a few hours. But it couldn't go to the exhibition. To-day is the 22nd; all the exhibits have been in a long time."

"Bah! With influence----"

She frowned, and her bad expression came back, her mouth turning down.

"That's true. The _protege of the Duc de Mora. Oh! you have no need to apologize. I know what people say, and I don't care _that_--" and she threw a little ball of clay at the wall, where it stuck, flat. "Perhaps men, by dint of supposing the thing which is not--But let us leave these infamies alone," she said, holding up her aristocratic head. "I really want to please you, Minerva. Your friend shall go to the _Salon this year."

Just then a smell of caramel and warm pastry filled the studio, where the shadows were falling like a fine gray dust, and the fairy appeared, a dish of sweetmeats in her hand. She looked more fairy-like than ever, bedecked and rejuvenated; dressed in a white gown which showed her beautiful arms through sleeves of old lace; they were beautiful still, for the arm is the beauty that fades last.

"Look at my _kuchen_, dearie; they are such a success this time. Oh! I beg your pardon. I did not see you had friends. And it is M. Paul! How are you M. Paul? Taste one of my cakes."

And the charming old lady, whose dress seemed to lend her an extraordinary vivacity, came towards him, balancing the plate on the tips of her tiny fingers.

"Don't bother him. You can give him some at dinner," said Felicia quietly.

"At dinner?"

The dancer was so astonished that she almost upset her pretty pastries, which looked as light and airy and delicious as herself.

"Yes, he is staying to dine with us. Oh! I beg it of you," she added, with a particular insistence as she saw he was going to refuse, "I beg you to stay. Don't say no. You will be rendering me a real service by staying to-night. Come--I didn't hesitate a few minutes ago."

She had taken his hand; and in truth might have been struck by a strange disproportion between her request and the supplicating, anxious tone in which it was made. Paul still attempted to excuse himself. He was not dressed. How could she propose it!--a dinner at which she would have other guests.

"My dinner? But I will countermand it! That is the kind of person I am. We shall be alone, just the three of us, with Constance."

"But, Felicia, my child, you can't really think of such a thing. Ah, well! And the--the other who will be coming directly.

"I am going to write to him to stay at home, _parbleu_!"

"You unlucky being, it is too late."

"Not at all. It is striking six o'clock. The dinner was for half past seven. You must have this sent to him quickly."

She was writing hastily at a corner of the table.

"What a strange girl, _mon Dieu! mon Dieu!_" murmured the dancer in bewilderment, while Felicia, delighted, transfigured, was joyously sealing her letter.

"There! my excuse is made. Headaches have not been invented for Kadour."

Then, the letter having been despatched:

"Oh, how pleased I am! What a jolly evening we shall have! Do kiss me, Constance! It will not prevent us from doing honour to your _kuchen_, and we shall have the pleasure of seeing you in a pretty toilette which makes you look younger than I do."

This was more than was required to cause the dancer to forgive this new caprice of her dear demon, and the crime of _lese-majeste in which she had just been involved against her will. To treat so great a personage so cavalierly! There was no one like her in the world--there was no one like her. As for Paul de Gery, he no longer tried to resist, under the spell once more of that attraction from which he had been able to fancy himself released by absence, but which, from the moment he crossed the threshold of the studio, had put chains on his will, delivered him over, bound and vanquished, to the sentiment which he was quite resolved to combat.

Evidently the dinner--a repast for a veritable _gourmet_, superintended by the Austrian lady in its least details--had been prepared for a guest of great mark. From the lofty Kabyle chandelier with its seven branches of carved wood, which cast its light over the table-cloth covered with embroidery, to the long-necked decanters holding the wines within their strange and exquisite form, the sumptuous magnificence of the service, the delicacy of the meats, to which edge was given by a certain unusualness in their selection, revealed the importance of the expected visitor, the anxiety which there had been to please him. The table was certainly that of an artist. Little silver, but superb china, much unity of effect, without the least attempt at matching. The old Rouen, the pink Sevres, the Dutch glass mounted in old filigree pewter met on this table as on a sideboard devoted to the display of rare curios collected by a connoisseur exclusively for the satisfaction of his taste. A little disorder naturally, in this household equipped at hazard, as choice things could be picked up. The wonderful cruet-stand had lost its stoppers. The chipped salt-cellar allowed its contents to escape on the table-cloth, and at every moment you would hear, "Why! what is become of the mustard-pot?" "What has happened to this fork?" This embarrassed de Gery a little on account of the young mistress of the house, who for her part took no notice of it.

But something made Paul feel still more ill at ease--his anxiety, namely, to know who the privileged guest might be whom he was replacing at this table, who could be treated at once with so much magnificence and so complete an informality. In spite of everything, he felt him present, an offence to his personal dignity, that visitor whose invitation had been cancelled. It was in vain that he tried to forget him; everything brought him back to his mind, even the fine dress of the good fairy sitting opposite him, who still maintained some of the grand airs with which she had equipped herself in advance for the solemn occasion. This thought troubled him, spoiled for him the pleasure of being there.

On the other hand, by contrast, as it happens in all friendships between two people who meet very rarely, never had he seen Felicia so affectionate, in such happy temper. It was an overflowing gaiety that was almost childish, one of those warm expansions of feeling that are experienced when a danger has been passed, the reaction of a bright roaring fire after the emotion of a shipwreck. She laughed heartily, teased Paul about his accent and what she called his _bourgeois ideas. "For you are a terrible _bourgeois_, you know. But it is that that I like in you. It is an effect of contraries, doubtless; it is because I myself was born under a bridge, in a gust of wind, that I have always liked sedate, reasonable natures."

"Oh, my child, what are you going to have M. Paul think, that you were born under a bridge?" said the good Crenmitz, who could not accustom herself to the exaggeration of certain metaphors, and always took everything literally.

"Let him think what he likes, my fairy. We are not trying to catch him for a husband. I am sure he would not want one of those monsters who are known as female artists. He would think he was marrying the devil. You are quite right, Minerva. Art is a despot. One has to give one's self entirely up to him. To toil in his service, one devotes all the ideal, all the energy, honesty, conscience, that one possesses, so that you have none of these things left for real life, and the completed labour throws you down, strengthless and without a compass, like a dismantled hulk at the mercy of every wave. A sorry acquisition, such a wife!"

"And yet," the young man hazarded timidly, "it seems to me that art, however exigent it be, cannot for all that entirely absorb a woman. What would she do with her affections, of that need to love, to devote herself, which in her, much more than in us, is the spring of all her actions?"

She mused a moment before replying.

"Perhaps you are right, wise Minerva. It is true that there are days when my life rings terribly hollow. I am conscious of abysses, profound chasms in it. Everything that I throw in to fill it up disappears. My finest enthusiasms of the artist are engulfed there and die each time in a sigh. And then I think of marriage. A husband; children--a swarm of children, who would roll about the studio; a nest to look after for them all; the satisfaction of that physical activity which is lacking in our existences of artists; regular occupations; high spirits, songs, innocent gaieties, which would oblige you to play instead of thinking in the air, in the dark--to laugh at a wound to one's self-love, to be only a contented mother on the day when the public should see you as a worn-out, exhausted artist."

And before this tender vision the girl's beauty took on an expression which Paul had never seen in it before, an expression which gripped his whole being, and gave him a mad longing to carry off in his arms that beautiful wild bird, dreaming of the home-cote, to protect and shelter it in the sure love of an honest man.

She, without looking at him, continued:

"I am not so erratic as I appear; don't think it. Ask my good godmother if, when she sent me to boarding-school, I did not observe the rules. But what a muddle in my life afterward. If you knew what sort of an early youth I had; how precocious an experience tarnished my mind, in the head of the little girl I was, what a confusion of the permitted and the forbidden, of reason and folly! Art alone, extolled and discussed, stood out boldly from among it all, and I took refuge in it. That is perhaps why I shall never be anything but an artist, a woman apart from others, a poor Amazon with heart imprisoned in her iron cuirass, launched into the conflict like a man, and as a man condemned to live and die."

Why did he not say to her, at this:

"Beauteous lady-warrior, lay down your arms, resume the flowing robe and the graces of the woman's sphere. I love you! Marry me, I implore you, and win happiness both for yourself and for me."

Ah, there it is! He was afraid lest the other--you know him, the man who was to have come to dinner that evening and who remained between them despite his absence--should hear him speak thus and be in a position to jest at or to pity him for that fine outburst.

"In any case, I firmly swear one thing," she resumed, "and it is that if ever I have a daughter, I will try to make a true woman of her, and not a poor lonely creature like myself. Oh! you know, my fairy, it is not for you that I say that. You have always been kind to your demon, full of attentions and tenderness. But just see how pretty she is, how young she looks this evening."

Animated by the meal, the bright lights, one of those white dresses the reflection from which effaces wrinkles, the Crenmitz, leaning back in her chair, held up on a level with her half-closed eyes a glass of Chateau-Yquem, come from the cellar of the neighbouring Moulin-Rouge; and her dainty little rosy face, her flowing garments, like those you might see in some pastel, reflected in the golden wine, which lent to them its own piquant fervour, recalled to mind the quondam heroine of gay little suppers after the theatre, the Crenmitz of the brave old days--not an audacious creature after the manner of the stars of our modern opera, but unconscious, and wrapped in her luxury like a fine pearl in the delicate whiteness of its shell. Felicia, who decidedly that evening was anxious to please everybody, turned her mind gently to the chapter of recollections; got her to recount once more her great triumphs in _Gisella_, in the _Peri_, and the ovations of the public; the visit of the princes to her dressing-room; the present of Queen Amelia, accompanied by such a charming little speech. The recalling of these glories intoxicated the poor fairy; her eyes shone; they heard her little feet moving impatiently under the table as though seized by a dancing frenzy. And in effect, dinner over, when they had returned to the studio, Constance began to walk backward and forward, now and then half executing a step, a pirouette, while continuing to talk, interrupting herself to hum some ballad air of which she would keep the rhythm with a movement of the head; then suddenly she bent herself double, and with a bound was at the other end of the studio.

"Now she is off!" said Felicia in a low voice to de Gery. "Watch! It is worth your while; you are going to see the Crenmitz dance."

It was charming and fairy-like. Against the background of the immense room lost in shadow and receiving almost no light save through the arched glass roof over which the moon was climbing in a pale sky of night blue, a veritable sky of the opera, the silhouette of the famous dancer stood out all white, like a droll little shadow, light and imponderable, which seemed rather to be flying in the air than springing over the floor; then, erect upon the tips of her toes, supported in the air only by her extended arms, her face lifted in an elusive pose, which left nothing visible but the smile, she advanced quickly towards the light or fled away with little rushes so rapid that you were constantly expecting to hear a slight shivering of glass and to see her thus mount backward the slope of the great moonbeam that lay aslant the studio. That which added a charm, a singular poetry, to this fantastic ballet was the absence of music, the sound alone of the rhythmical beat the force of which was accentuated by the semi-darkness, of that quick and light tapping not heavier on the parquet floor than the fall, petal by petal, of a dahlia going out of bloom.

Thus it went on for some minutes, at the end of which they knew, by hearing her shorter breathing, that she was becoming fatigued.

"Enough! enough! Sit down now," said Felicia. Thereupon the little white shadow halted beside an easy chair, and there remained posed, ready to start off again, smiling and breathless, until sleep overcame her, rocking and balancing her gently without disturbing her pretty pose, as of a dragon-fly on the branch of a willow dipping in the water and swayed by the current.

While they watched her, dozing on her easy chair:

"Poor little fairy!" said Felicia, "hers is what I have had best and most serious in my life in the way of friendship, protection, and guardianship. Can you wonder now at the zig-zags, the erratic nature of my mind? Fortunate at that, to have gone no further."

And suddenly, with a joyous effusion of feeling:

"Ah, Minerva, Minerva, I am very glad that you came this evening! But you must not leave me to myself for so long again, mind. I need to have near me an honest mind like yours, to see a true face among the masks that surround me. A fearful _bourgeois_, all the same," she added, laughing, "and a provincial into the bargain. But no matter! It is you, for all that, whom it gives me the most pleasure to see. And I believe that my liking for you is due especially to one thing: you remind me of some one who was the great affection of my youth, a sedate and sensible little being she also, chained to the matter-of-fact side of existence, but tempering it with that ideal element which we artists set aside exclusively for the profit of our work. Certain things which you say seem to me as though they had come from her. You have the same mouth, like an antique model's. Is it that that gives this resemblance to your words? I have no idea, but most certainly you are like each other. You shall see."

On the table laden with sketches and albums, at which she was sitting facing him, she drew, as she talked, with brow inclined and her rather wild curly hair shading her graceful little head. She was no longer the beautiful couchant monster, with the anxious and gloomy countenance, condemning her own destiny, but a woman, a true woman, in love, and eager to beguile. This time Paul forgot all his mistrusts in presence of so much sincerity and such passing grace. He was about to speak, to persuade. The minute was decisive. But the door opened and the little page appeared. M. le Duc had sent to inquire whether mademoiselle was still suffering from her headache of earlier in the evening.

"Still just as much," she said with irritation.

When the servant had gone out, a moment of silence fell between them, a glacial coldness. Paul had risen. She continued her sketch, with her head still bowed.

He took a few paces in the studio; then, having come back to the table, he asked quietly, astonished to feel himself so calm:

"It was the Duc de Mora who was to have dined here?"

"Yes. I was bored--a day of spleen. Days of that kind are bad for me."

"Was the duchess to have come?"

"The duchess? No. I don't know her."

"Well, in your place I would never receive in my house, at my table, a married man whose wife I did not meet. You complain of being deserted; why desert yourself? When one is without reproach, one should avoid the very suspicion of it. Do I vex you?"

"No, no, scold me, Minerva. I have no objection to your ethics. They are honest and frank, yours; they do not blink uncertain, like those of Jenkins. I told you, I need some one to guide me."

And tossing over to him the sketch which she had just finished:

"See, that is the friend of whom I was speaking to you. A profound and sure affection, which I was foolish enough to allow to be lost to me, like the bungler I am. She it was to whom I appealed in moments of difficulty, when a decision required to be taken, some sacrifice made. I used to say to myself, 'What will she think of this?' just as we artists may stop in the midst of a piece of work to refer it mentally to some great man, one of our masters. I must have you take her place for me. Will you?"

Paul did not answer. He was looking at the portrait of Aline. It was she, herself to the letter; her pure profile, her mocking and kindly mouth, and the long curl like a caress on the delicate neck. Felicia had ceased to exist for him.

Poor Felicia, endowed with superior talents, she was indeed like those magicians who knot and unknot the destinies of men, without possessing any power over their own happiness.

"Will you give me this sketch?" he said in a low, quivering voice.

"Most willingly. She is nice--isn't she? Ah! her indeed, if you should meet, love her, marry her. She is worth more than all the rest of womankind together. And yet, failing her--failing her----"

And the beautiful sphinx, tamed, raised to him, moist and laughing, her great eyes, in which an enigma had ceased to be indecipherable.

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