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    Chapter 13

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    Chapter 13
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    Dating from that night Jean Servien spent his days in translating _Myrrha_ bit by bit, with an infinity of pains. The task having taught him something of verse-making, he composed an ode, which he sent by post to his mistress. The poem was writ in tears of blood, yet it was as cold and insipid as a schoolboy's exercise. Still, he did get something said of the fair vision of a woman that hovered for ever before his eyes, and of the door he had kissed in a night of frenzy.

    Monsieur Servien was disturbed to note how his son had grown heedless, absent-minded, and hollow-eyed, coming back late at night, and hardly up before noon. Before the mute reproach in his father's eyes the boy hung his head. But his home-life was nothing now; his whole thoughts were abroad, hovering around the unknown, in regions he pictured as resplendent with poetry, wealth and pleasure.

    Occasionally, at a street corner, he would meet the Marquis Tudesco again. He had found it impossible to replace his waistcoat of ticking. Moreover, he now advised Jean to pay his addresses to shop-girls.

    When the summer came, the theatrical posters announced in quick succession _Mithridate, Adrienne Lecouvreur, Rodogune, les Enfants d'Edouard, la Fiammina_. Jean, having secured the money to pay for a seat by hook or by crook, by some bit of trickery or falsehood, by cajoling his aunt or by a surreptitious raid on the cash-box, would watch from an orchestra stall the startling metamorphoses of the woman he loved. He saw her now girt with the white fillet of the virgins of Hellas, like those figures carved with such an exquisite purity in the marble of the Greek bas-reliefs that they seem clad in inviolate innocence, now in a flowered gown, with powdered ringlets sweeping her naked shoulders, that had an inexpressible charm in their spare outlines suggestive of the bitter-sweet taste of an unripe fruit. She reminded him in this attire of some old-time pastel of gallant ladies such as the bookbinder's son had pored over in the dealers' shops on the _Quai Voltaire_. Anon she would be crowned with a hawk's crest, girdled with plaques of gold on which were traced magic symbols in clustered rubies, clad in the barbaric splendour of an Eastern queen; presently she would be wearing the black hood, pointed above the brow, and the dusky velvet robe of a Royal widow, like the portraits to be seen guarded as holy relics in a chamber of the Louvre; last travesty of all (and it was in this guise he found her most adorable), as a modern horsewoman, clothed from neck to heel in a close-fitting habit, a man's hat set rakishly on her dainty head. He would fain spend his life in these romantic dreams, and devoured Racine, the Greek tragedians, Corneille, Shakespeare, Voltaire's verses on the death of Adrienne Lecouvreur, and whatever in modern literature appealed to him as elegant or fraught with passion. But in all these creations it was one image, and one only, that he saw.

    Going one evening to the dram-shop with the Marquis Tudesco, who had given up all idea of discarding his checked waistcoat, he made the acquaintance of an old man whose white hair lay in ringlets on his shoulders and who still had the blue eyes of a child. He was an architect fallen to ruin along with the little Gothic erections he had raised at great expense in the Paris suburbs about 1840. His name was Théroulde, and the old fellow, whose smiling face belied his wretched condition, overflowed with anecdotes of artists and pretty women.

    In his prosperous days he had built country villas for actresses and attended many a joyous house-warming, the fun and frolic of which were still fresh in the light-hearted veteran's memory. He had long ceased to care who heard him, and primed with maraschino, he would unfold his reminiscences like some sumptuous tapestry gone to tatters. The bookseller's son, meeting an artist for the first time, listened to the old Bohemian with rapt enthusiasm. All these forgotten celebrities, or half-celebrities, all these old young beauties of whom Théroulde spoke, came to life again for him, fascinated him with an unexpected charm and a piquant sense of familiarity. Servien pictured them as he had seen them represented in the old foxed lithographs that litter the second-hand bookstalls along the _Quais_, wearing the hair in flat bandeaux with a jewel on a gold chain in the middle of the forehead, or else in heavy ringlets _à l'Anglaise_ brushing the cheeks. Obsessed by his one idea, he endeavoured to recall one who seemed so well acquainted with ladies of the stage to the present day. He spoke of tragedy, but Théroulde said he thought that sort of plays ridiculous, and repeated a number of parodies. Jean mentioned Gabrielle T----.

    "T----," exclaimed the artist-architect; "I knew her mother well."

    Never in all his life had Jean heard a sentence that interested him so profoundly.

    "I knew her in 1842," Théroulde went on, "at Nantes, where she created fourteen rôles in six weeks. And folks imagine actresses have nothing to do! A fine thing, the stage! But the mischief is, there's not a single architect capable of building a playhouse with any sense. As to scenery, it is simply puerile, even at the Opera--so childish it might make a South Sea Islander blush. I have thought out a system of rollers in the flies so as to get rid of those long top-cloths that represent the sky without a pretence at deceiving anyone. I have likewise invented an arrangement of lamps and reflectors so placed as to light the characters on the stage from above downwards, as the sun does, which is the rational way, and not from below upwards, as the footlights do, which is absurd."

    "Of course it is," agreed Servien. "But you were speaking of Gabrielle T----'s mother."

    "She was a fine woman," replied the architect; "tall, dark, with a little moustache that became her to perfection.... You see the effect of my roller contrivance--a vast sky shedding an equal illumination over the actors and giving every object its natural shadows. _La Muette_ is being played, we will say; the famous _cavatina_, the slumber-song, is heard beneath a transparent sky, vaulted like the real thing and giving the impression of boundless space. The effect of the music is doubled! Fenella wakes, crosses the boards with cadenced tread; her shadow, which follows her on the floor, is cadenced like her steps; it is nature and art both together. That is my invention! As for putting it in execution, why, the means are childishly simple."

    Thereupon he entered upon endless explanations, using technical terms and illustrating his meaning with everything he could lay hands on--glasses, saucers, matches. His frayed sleeves, as they swept to and fro, wiped the marble top of the table and set the glasses rattling. Disturbed by the noise, the Marquis Tudesco, who was asleep, half opened his eyes mechanically.

    Servien kept nodding his approval and repeating that he quite understood, to stop the old man's babble. Then he advised the architect to try and put his invention in practice; but he only shrugged his shoulders--it was years since he had left off trying anything. After all, what did it matter to him whether his system was applied or no? He was an inventor!

    Recalled for the third time by his young listener to Gabrielle T----'s mother:

    "She never had any great success on the stage," he declared; "but she was a careful woman and saved money. She was near on fifty when I came upon her again in Paris living with Adolphe, a very handsome young fellow of twenty-five or twenty-six, nephew of a stockbroker. It was the most loving couple, the merriest, happiest household in the world. Never once did I breakfast at their little flat, fifth floor of a house in the _Rue Taitbout_, without being melted to tears. 'Eat, my kitten,' 'Drink, my lamb!' and such looks and endearments, and each so pleased with the other! One day he said to her: 'My kitten, your money does not bring you in what it ought; give me your scrip and in forty-eight hours I shall have doubled your capital.' She went softly to her cupboard and opening the glass doors, handed him her securities one by one with hands that trembled a little.

    "He took them unconcernedly and brought her a receipt the same evening bearing his uncle's signature. Three months after she was pocketing a very handsome income. The sixth month Adolphe disappeared. The old girl goes straight to the uncle with her screed of paper. 'I never signed that,' says the stockbroker, 'and my nephew never deposited any securities with me.' She flies like a mad-woman to the Commissary of Police, to learn that Adolphe, hammered at the Bourse, is off to Belgium, carrying with him a hundred and twenty thousand francs he had done another old woman out of. She never got over the blow; but we must say this of her, she brought up her daughter mighty strictly, and showed herself a very dragon of virtue. Poor Gabrielle must feel her cheeks burn to this day only to think of her years at the Conservatoire; for in those days her mother used to smack them soundly for her, morning and evening. Gabrielle, why I can see her now, in her sky-blue frock, running to lessons nibbling coffee-berries between her teeth. She was a good girl, that."

    "You knew her!" cried Jean, for whom these confidences formed the most exciting love adventure he had ever known.

    The old man assured him:

    "We used to have fine rides with her and a lot of artists in old days on horseback and donkey-back in the woods of Ville d'Avray; she used to dress as a man, and I remember one day..." He finished his story in a whisper,--it was just as well. He went on to say he hardly ever saw her now that she was with Monsieur Didier, of the Crédit Bourguignon. The financier had sent the artists to the right-about; he was a conceited, narrow-minded fellow, a dull, tiresome prig.

    Jean was neither surprised nor excessively shocked to hear that she had a lover, because having studied the ways of the ladies of the theatre in the proverbs in verse of Alfred de Musset, he pictured the life of Parisian actresses without exception as one continual feast of wit and gallantry. He loved her; with or without Didier, he loved her. She might have had three hundred lovers, like Lesbia,--he would have loved her just as much. Is it not always so with men's passions? They are in love because they are in love, and in spite of everything.

    As for feeling jealousy of Monsieur Didier, he never so much as thought of it. The infatuation of the lad! He was jealous of the men and women who saw her pass to and fro in the street, of the scene-shifters and workmen whom the business of the stage brought into contact with her. For the present these were his only rivals. For the rest, he trusted to the future, the ineffable future big whether with bliss or torment. Indeed, the literature of romance had inspired him with no small esteem of courtesans, if only their attitude was as it should be--leaning pensively on the balcony-rail of their marble palace.

    What did shock him in the rapscallion architect's stories, what wounded his love without weakening it, was all the rather squalid elements these narratives implied in the actress's young days. Of all things in the world he thought anything sordid the most repugnant.

    Monsieur Tudesco, feeling sure his brandy-cherries would be paid for, did not trouble himself to talk, and the conversation was languishing when the architect remarked casually:

    "By-the-by! As I was going to Bellevue yesterday on business of my own, I came upon that actress of yours, young man, at her gate... oh! a rubbishy little villa, run up to last through a love affair, standing in six square yards of garden, meant to give a stock-broker some sort of notion what the country's like. She invited me in--but what was the use?"...

    She was at Bellevue! Jean forgot all the humiliating details the old man had told him, retaining the one fact only, that she was at Bellevue and it was possible to see her there in the sweet intimacy of the country.

    He got up to go. Monsieur Tudesco caught him by the skirt of his jacket to detain him:

    "My young friend, you have my admiration; for I see you rise on daring pinions above the hindrances of a lowly station to the realms of beauty, fame and wealth. You will yet cull the splendid blossom that fascinates you, at least I hope so. But how much better had you loved a simple work-girl, whose affections you could have beguiled by offering her a penn'orth of fried potatoes and a seat among the gods to see a melodrama. I fear you are a dupe of men's opinion, for one woman is not very different from another, and it is opinion, that mistress of the world, and nothing else, which sets a high price on some and a low one on others. Do you profit, my young and very dear friend, by the experience afforded me by the vicissitudes of fortune, which are such that I am obliged at this present moment to borrow of you the modest sum of two and a half francs."

    So spake the Marquis Tudesco.
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