In his study M. Bergeret, professor of literature at the University, was preparing his lesson on the eighth book of the Æneid to the shrill mechanical accompaniment of the piano, on which, close by, his daughters were practising a difficult exercise. M. Bergeret’s room possessed only one window, but this was a large one, and filled up one whole side. It admitted, however, more draught than light, for the sashes were ill-fitting and the panes darkened by a high contiguous wall. M. Bergeret’s table, pushed close against this window, caught the dismal rays of niggard daylight that filtered through. As a matter of fact this study, where the professor polished and repolished his fine, scholarly phrases, was nothing more than a shapeless cranny, or rather a double recess, behind the framework of the main staircase which, spreading out most inconsiderately in a great curve towards the window, left only room on either side for two useless, churlish corners. Trammelled by this monstrous, green-papered paunch of masonry, M. Bergeret had with difficulty discovered in his cantankerous study—a geometrical abortion as well as an æsthetic abomination—a scanty flat surface where he could stack his books along the deal shelves, upon which yellow rows of Teubner classics were plunged in never-lifted gloom. M. Bergeret himself used to sit squeezed close up against the window, writing in a cold, chilly style that owed much to the bleakness of the atmosphere in which he worked. Whenever he found his papers neither torn nor topsy-turvy and his pens not gaping cross-nibbed, he considered himself a lucky man! For such was the usual result of a visit to the study from Madame Bergeret or her daughters, where they came to write up the laundry list or the household accounts. Here, too, stood the dressmaker’s dummy, on which Madame Bergeret used to drape the skirts she cut out at home. There, bolt upright, over against the learned editions of Catullus and Petronius, stood, like a symbol of the wedded state, this wicker-work woman.
What one first notes about The Queen Pedauque is the fact that in this ironic and subtle book is presented a story which, curiously enough, is remarkable for its entire innocence of subtlety and irony. Abridge the "plot" into a synopsis, and you will find your digest to be what is manifestly the outline of a straightforward, plumed romance by the elder Dumas.
Indeed, Dumas would have handled the "strange surprising adventures" of Jacques Tournebroche to a nicety, if only Dumas had ever thought to have his collaborators write this brisk tale, wherein d'Astarac and Tournebroche and Mosaide display, even now, a noticeable something in common with the Balsamo and Gilbert and Althotas of the Memoires d'un Medecin. One foresees, to be sure, that, with the twin-girthed Creole for guide, M. Jerome Coignard would have waddled into immortality not quite as we know him, but with somewhat more of a fraternal resemblance to the Dom Gorenflot of La Dame de Monsoreau; and that the blood of the abbe's death-wound could never have bedewed the book's final pages, in the teeth of Dumas' economic unwillingness ever to despatch any character who was "good for" a sequel.
And one thinks rather kindlily of The Queen Pedauque as Dumas would have equipped it... Yes, in reading here, it is the most facile and least avoidable of mental exercises to prefigure how excellently Dumas would have contrived this book,—somewhat as in the reading of Mr. Joseph Conrad's novels a many of us are haunted by the sense that the Conrad "story" is, in its essential beams and stanchions, the sort of thing which W. Clark Russell used to put together, in a rather different way, for our illicit perusal. Whereby I only mean that such seafaring was illicit in those aureate days when, Cleveland being consul for the second time, your geography figured as the screen of fictive reading-matter during school-hours.
One need not say that there is no question, in either case, of "imitation," far less of "plagiarism"; nor need one, surely, point out the impossibility of anybody's ever mistaking the present book for a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Ere Homer's eyesight began not to be what it had been, the fact was noted by the observant Chian, that very few sane architects commence an edifice by planting and rearing the oaks which are to compose its beams and stanchions. You take over all such supplies ready hewn, and choose by preference time-seasoned timber. Since Homer's prime a host of other great creative writers have recognised this axiom when they too began to build: and "originality" has by ordinary been, like chess and democracy, a Mecca for little minds.
Monsieur Bergeret was seated at table taking his frugal evening meal. Riquet lay at his feet on a tapestry cushion. Riquet had a religious soul; he rendered divine honours to mankind. He regarded his master as very good and very great. But it was chiefly when he saw him at table that he realized the sovereign greatness and goodness of Monsieur Bergeret.
If, to Riquet, all things pertaining to food were precious and impressive, those pertaining to the food of man were sacred. He venerated the dining-room as a temple, the table as an altar. During meals he kept his place at his master’s feet, in silence and immobility.
“It’s a spring chicken,” said old Angélique as she placed the dish upon the table.
“Good. Be kind enough to carve it, then,” said Monsieur Bergeret, who was a poor hand with weapons and quite hopeless as a carver.
“Willingly,” said Angélique, “but carving isn’t woman’s work, it’s the gentlemen who ought to carve poultry.”
“I don’t know how to carve.”
“Monsieur ought to know.”
This dialogue was by no means new. Angélique and her master exchanged similar remarks every time that game or poultry came to the table. It was not flippantly, it was certainly not to save herself trouble, that the old servant persisted in offering her master the carving-knife as a token of the respect which was due to him. In the peasant class from which she had sprung and also in the little middle-class households where she had been in service, it was a tradition that it was the master’s duty to carve. The faithful old soul’s respect for tradition was profound. She did not think it right that Monsieur Bergeret should fall short of it, that he should delegate to her the performance of so authoritative a function, that he should fail to carve at his own table, since he was not grand enough to employ a butler to do it for him, like the Brécés, the Bonmonts and other such folk in town or country. She knew the obligations which honour imposes on a citizen who dines at home, and she never failed to impress them upon Monsieur Bergeret.
True to her word, Madame Bergeret quitted the conjugal roof and betook herself to the house of her mother, the widow Pouilly.
As the time for her departure drew near, she had half a mind not to go, and with a little coaxing would have consented to forget the past and resume the old life with her husband, at the same time vaguely despising M. Bergeret as the injured party.
She was quite ready to forgive and forget, but the unbending esteem in which she was held by the circle in which she moved did not allow of such a course. Madame Dellion had made it clear to her that any such weakness on her part would be judged unfavourably; all the drawing-rooms in the place were unanimous upon that score. There was but one opinion among the tradespeople: Madame Bergeret must return to her mother. In this way did they uphold the proprieties and, at the same time, rid themselves of a thoughtless, common, compromising person, whose vulgarity was apparent even to the vulgar, and who was a burden on everybody about her. They made her believe there was something heroic in her conduct.
“I have the greatest admiration for you, my child,” said old Madame Dutilleul from the depths of her easy chair, she who had survived four husbands, and was a truly terrible woman. People suspected her of everything, except of ever having loved, and in her old age she was honoured and respected by all.
Madame Bergeret was delighted at having inspired sympathy in Madame Dellion and admiration in Madame Dutilleul, and still she could not finally make up her mind to go, for she was of a homely disposition and accustomed to regular habits and quite content to live on in idleness and deceit. Having grasped this fact, M. Bergeret redoubled his efforts to ensure his deliverance. He stoutly upheld Marie, the servant, who kept every one in the house in a state of wretchedness and trepidation, was suspected of harbouring thieves and cut-throats in her kitchen, and only brought herself into prominence by the catastrophes she caused....
Jean Servien was born in a back-shop in the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs. His father was a bookbinder and worked for the Religious Houses. Jean was a little weakling child, and his mother nursed him at her breast as she sewed the books, sheet by sheet, with the curved needle of the trade. One day as she was crossing the shop, humming a song, in the words of which she found expression for the vague, splendid visions of her maternal ambition, her foot slipped on the boards, which were moist with paste.
Instinctively she threw up her arm to guard the child she held clasped to her bosom, and struck her breast, thus exposed, a severe blow against the corner of the iron press. She felt no very acute pain at the time, but later on an abscess formed, which got well, but presently reopened, and a low fever supervened that confined her to her bed.
There, in the long, long evenings, she would fold her little one in her one sound arm and croon over him in a hot, feverish whisper bits of her favourite ditty:
The fisherman, when dawn is nigh,
Peers forth to greet the kindling sky….
Above all, she loved the refrain that recurred at the end of each verse with only the change of a word. It was her little Jean's lullaby, who became, at the caprice of the words, turn and turn about, General, Lawyer, and ministrant at the altar in her fond hopes.
A few Frenchmen, united in friendship, who were spending the spring in Rome, were wont to meet amid the ruins of the disinterred Forum. They were Joséphin Leclerc, an Embassy Attaché on leave; M. Goubin, licencié ès lettres, an annotator; Nicole Langelier, of the old Parisian family of the Langeliers, printers and classical scholars; Jean Boilly, a civil engineer, and Hippolyte Dufresne, a man of leisure, and a lover of the fine arts.
Towards five o’clock of the afternoon of the first day of May, they wended their way, as was their custom, through the northern door, closed to the public, where Commendatore Boni, who superintended the excavations, welcomed them with quiet amenity, and led them to the threshold of his house of wood nestling in the shadow of laurel bushes, privet hedges and cytisus, and rising above the vast trench, dug down to the depth of the ancient Forum, in the cattle market of pontifical Rome.
Here, they pause awhile, and look about them.
Facing them rise the truncated shafts of the Columnæ Honorariæ, and where stood the Basilica of Julia, the eye rested on what bore the semblance of a huge draughts-board and its draughts. Further south, the three columns of the Temple of the Dioscuri cleave the azure of the skies with their blue-tinted volutes. On their right, surmounting the dilapidated Arch of Septimus Severus, the tall columns of the Temple of Saturn, the dwellings of Christian Rome, and the Women’s Hospital display in tiers, their facings yellower and muddier than the waters of the Tiber. To their left stands the Palatine flanked by huge red arches and crowned with evergreen oaks. At their feet, from hill to hill, among the flagstones of the Via Sacra, narrow as a village street, spring from the earth an agglomeration of brick walls and marble foundations, the remains of buildings which dotted the Forum in the days of Rome’s strength. Trefoil, oats, and the grasses of the field which the wind has sown on their lowered tops, have covered them with a rustic roof illumined by the crimson poppies. A mass of débris, of crumbling entablatures, a multitude of pillars and altars, an entanglement of steps and enclosing walls: all this indeed not stunted but of a serried vastness and within limits.
CHAPTER I. "I NEED LOVE"
She gave a glance at the armchairs placed before the chimney, at the tea-table, which shone in the shade, and at the tall, pale stems of flowers ascending above Chinese vases. She thrust her hand among the flowery branches of the guelder roses to make their silvery balls quiver. Then she looked at herself in a mirror with serious attention. She held herself sidewise, her neck turned over her shoulder, to follow with her eyes the spring of her fine form in its sheath-like black satin gown, around which floated a light tunic studded with pearls wherein sombre lights scintillated. She went nearer, curious to know her face of that day. The mirror returned her look with tranquillity, as if this amiable woman whom she examined, and who was not unpleasing to her, lived without either acute joy or profound sadness.
On the walls of the large drawing-room, empty and silent, the figures of the tapestries, vague as shadows, showed pallid among their antique games and dying graces. Like them, the terra-cotta statuettes on slender columns, the groups of old Saxony, and the paintings of Sevres, spoke of past glories. On a pedestal ornamented with precious bronzes, the marble bust of some princess royal disguised as Diana appeared about to fly out of her turbulent drapery, while on the ceiling a figure of Night, powdered like a marquise and surrounded by cupids, sowed flowers. Everything was asleep, and only the crackling of the logs and the light rattle of Therese's pearls could be heard.
THE BARD OF KYME
Along the hill-side he came, following a path which skirted the sea. His forehead was bare, deeply furrowed and bound by a fillet of red wool. The sea-breeze blew his white locks over his temples and pressed the fleece of a snow-white beard against his chin. His tunic and his feet were the colour of the roads which he had trodden for so many years. A roughly made lyre hung at his side. He was known as the Aged One, and also as the Bard. Yet another name was given him by the children to whom he taught poetry and music, and many called him the Blind One, because his eyes, dim with age, were overhung by swollen lids, reddened by the smoke of the hearths beside which he was wont to sit when he sang. But his was no eternal night, and he was said to see things invisible to other men. For three generations he had been wandering ceaselessly to and fro. And now, having sung all day to a King of Ægea, he was returning to his home, the roof of which he could already see smoking in the distance; for now, after walking all night without a halt for fear of being overtaken by the heat of the day, in the clear light of the dawn he could see the white Kyme, his birthplace. With his dog at his side, leaning on his crooked staff, he walked with slow steps, his body upright, his head held high because of the steepness of the way leading down into the narrow valley and because he was still vigorous in his age. The sun, rising over the mountains of Asia, shed a rosy light over the fleecy clouds and the hill-sides of the islands that studded the sea. The coast-line glistened. But the hills that stretched away eastward, crowned with mastic and terebinth, lay still in the freshness and the shadow of night.
The Aged One measured along the incline the length of twelve times twelve lances and found, on the left, between the flanks of twin rocks, the narrow entrance to a sacred wood. There, on the brink of a spring, rose an altar of unhewn stones....
I moved forward to confront the silence and solitude and the mild terrors that lowered before me in the growing dusk. The tide of darkness rose by imperceptible degrees and drowned the landscape. The infinite of starry eyes winked in the sky, while in the gloom below the fireflies spangled the bushes with their trembling love-lights.
"Zodomirsky’s Duel", by Alexandre Dumas
"Mademoiselle Fifi", by Guy de Maupassant
"The Marquise", by George Sand
"Miss Harriet", by Guy de Maupassant
"The Cord", by Charles Baudelaire
"The Piece of String", by Guy de Maupassant
"The Necklace", by Guy de Maupassant
"An Episode of the Reign of Terror", by Honoré de Balzac
"A Child’s Revenge", by Paul Bourget
"In the Reign of Terror", by Anatole France
"Jeannot and Colin", by Voltaire
"The Mummy’s Foot", by Théophile Gautier
"The Paradise of Cats", by Emile Zolà
"The Shoulders of the Marquise", by Emile Zolà
"Jenny", by Victor Hugo
"The Child with the Bread Shoes", by Théophile Gautier
"The Reverend Father Gaucher's Elixir", by Alphonse Daudet