Yes, it was a sad and rending farewell! I must, too, have been plunged into the depths of melancholy in my heart, for as I wrote the account of it I sprinkled the paper with my tears; and now I feel that I have hardly the strength to take up my pen again to add to this real romance the sinister epilogue, the suggestive irony of which alone decided me to write these pages. Twenty-five months and an absence of that length have not healed my secret wound. It is still open and bleeding at the recollection simply of Camille's cheek moist with those vain tears beneath my farewell kiss, the first and last I ever placed on that charming face which was now profaned for ever. Yet if absence and silence are the two great remedies for those passions without hope and desire, one of which my strange sentiment for this poor girl was, I can do myself the justice to say that I sincerely practised them. Those twenty-five months appeared to me so short, so short when compared with those few weeks spent in following hour by hour the fatal march of the deceived mistress towards despair, and the rest without trying to prevent it.
278But let us run through those two years from memory, and also to prove that I have not much to regret in their employment. First of all, that same evening came my hurried flight to Marseilles, then the following day I sailed for Tuscany by one of the boats which call at Bastia eighteen hours later and then at Leghorn. I have always preferred this way of entering dear Italy without halts by the way, besides which this journey did away with the possibility of telegrams or letters for at least half a week, from Sunday to Thursday. Would Camille Favier leave Tournade and resume her position as Jacques' mistress or not? Would the latter follow up his absurd project of a duel with his new rival? Would he not extend the folly of his humiliated self-conceit to the length of having an affair with Pierre de Bonnivet as well? So weary was I that I no longer wished to set myself these problems. O God, how weary I was! In parenthesis, I was very wrong in setting myself these problems, for to talk like my friend Claude, who used to quote with such delight a phrase from Beyle upon the execution of one of his heroes: “Everything went off simply and decently.”
I found out that detail afterwards, but much later. At the time I remained in an uncertainty which I had the wisdom to prolong. But four months later, opening by chance a French paper in a hotel in Perugia, I saw that Mademoiselle Camille Favier was to replace Mademoiselle Berthe Vigneau in the chief part of a comedy by Dorsenn; 279that Molan was publishing a collection of his own plays; that a horse of M. Tournade's, Butterfly, had won some big race; that at a very select gathering at M. de Senneterre's Madam X, Madam Y, Madam Z, and Madam de Bonnivet were noticed. All this news was packed into this one issue of the paper like raisins in a pudding. It sufficed to prove to me that this corner of the world, like all corners of the world, was still itself, and that there was a reassuring lack of important events. But on my part, was I not imitating myself by copying first a part of the fresco of Spinello Aretino on Saint Ephse, then the Salom of Fra Filippo Lippo at Prato, and going on with a study after the Piero della Francesca by Arezzo? Then I was preparing to go to Ancona; afterwards to Brindisi; to visit Athens and Olympia, to feast with new visions the most sterile and insatiable of dilettantisms. When I think of that furious work of vain culture, I repeat to myself another phrase which Dorsenn was always quoting, the exclamation of the dying Bolivar so poignant with lassitude: “Those who have served the Revolution have ploughed the sea!” Have those who have served art as I have served it accomplished more useful work? Then what is it?
Then what? I think that Bonaparte, Talleyrand, Bernadotte and many others would have smiled a smile of the most profound contempt for the dying revolutionary who had caught no treasure in the great troubled sea of politics, and I have only to think of the two little scenes which fixed 280the bitter crisis in my memory to smile a no less contemptuous smile at myself. However, after my tour in Greece, I returned to prepare for a longer stay in the Orient, and a visit to Egypt and Asia Minor in the month of October, to begin there that series of pictures upon our Lord, conceived in their natural environment, which would have been the definitive work of my maturity if another had not anticipated me.
Chance had prevented me meeting Jacques and Camille between these two trips. I only know that the latter was more celebrated than ever and the former had married. He had decided at last to pluck the ripe pear, and he had done so under the wisest conditions. He had married a widow of about his own age who was very rich and without children, with sufficient to provide him in his maturity with a luxurious home without the aid of his copy. But as he had not deigned to add a friendly word to the wedding card he sent me I had not written to him. That absolute suppression of intercourse between us hardly allowed me to expect to see him enter, as he did the other day, my studio, looking a little older, but with as clear an eye, as satirical a mouth, and as well-dressed and smart a person as ever. Had we met on the previous evening he could not have shaken hands with gayer cordiality, and at once without waiting to hear my news began
“You don't know the pleasure I feel in seeing you again. When will you come and dine and be presented to Madam Molan? You shall see that 281I have been lucky in the marriage lottery. I am sure you will be very pleased with her. She knows, too, how I like you. Yes, we have not met lately, but that is no reason for forgetting. What have you been doing since we had our last chat? It is two years ago; how time passes! I knew that you had gone to the Orient. I heard of you through Laurens, the Consul at Cairo. You see, I followed your movements from afar. But tell me,” he went on, after I had replied to him in some embarrassment. These subtle cordialities after such indifference still disconcerted me a little. “Yes, tell me. Have you seen Camille Favier?”
“Me?” I cried, and I felt that I was blushing under his indulgent, ironical look, “never. Why do you ask that?”
“Ah, my dear boy,” he said laughing, and this time with a gay laugh which displayed his white teeth, which had remained quite sound though he was forty, “you were born simple and simple you will remain.”
“I understand you less and less,” I replied somewhat impatiently.
“Why? She pleased you. You pleased her. She has had lover after lover since TournadePhilippe de Vardes, Machault, Roland de Brvesevery one, in fact, ending by the little Duke of Lautrec, who spends 200,000 francs a year on her, and yet you did not return! It is said,” he continued with more malice still in his eyes, “that you will never see her again except under my chaperonage! Do you recall our last conversation, 282how I asked you to act as my ambassador to her and you refused? Ah, well, I want you to undertake another mission to her. Are you going to refuse again?”
“That depends upon the mission,” I replied in the same jesting tone.
“Alas! it is quite a literary one,” he went on gaily. “It is not that I fear my wife's jealousy. We are not lovers, she and I. We are associates for life, and she is intelligent enough to understand that the infidelities of a man like myself are of no consequence. But I have in all things a horror of going back, and particularly in love! Briefly this is what it is. You remember Madam de Bonnivet and her jealousy of Camille?”
“Queen Anne!” I interrupted; “do you want to send me to her too? That would crown everything.”
“No!” he said, “that is all over, and a very good thing, too. Do you know that she has been left a widow. There is a report that she is going to get married again. But the whole story, Camille's jealousy, the scene at my rooms, and the scene in the drawing-room, were all so well suited to a play that I have written one. It is a kind of Adrienne Lecouvreur, but modern. I have read it to a few friends and they are all of the same opinion, that it is the best thing I have done. We shall see whether his accession of wealth has spoiled Jacques Molan. It is a fact that I swore to write no more, and this is the only exception I shall make to that rule. After the age of forty, however 283great a genius a man may be, he repeats himself, then he has outlived his day. When a man cannot surpass himself it is better for him to be silent. I dream of an end like Shakespeare and Rossini, the end of a very little Rossini and an even smaller Shakespeare. But I have done what I can and I wish to let my twenty volumes rest. But this opportunity was too strong for me. The subject took possession of me, and the play is written. I repeat it is the last!”
“You have written a play upon that story?” I interrupted. “What will Madam de Bonnivet say?”
“That I am not clever,” he said. “With women of the world it is very simple. You figure in their drawing-rooms and you are a great man. You no longer appear there and your plays are not worth seeing. My wife has already recognized three of our friends as the principal character in the play. Besides people like the Bonnivets are very common now and they will not be recognized in it.”
“But Camille, whose romance, a sad and true romance, this adventure was, have you not thought of what you were doing to her by transporting her adventure warm with life to the stage?”
“That is precisely it,” he replied nodding his head; “it is her life and her personality. She is the only one who can play the part, and I do not know how to negotiate with her. She is a strange creature. She never forgets. Would you believe 284that three weeks ago she spoke bitterly of me to one of our mutual friends! If I write to her she is quite capable of leaving my letter unopened. Some one must go and suggest the part to her, some one before whom she has no self-conceit. I thought of Fomberteau. But we have not been very friendly since my marriage. He reproached me with selling myself. What foolishness! Camille and he have quarrelled, too, over some article. Oh, she has become a great actress now. That is the reason I have come to you to ask for your assistance.”
“Me!” I cried. “You want me to go with your manuscript and beg that poor girl not only to forgive you for writing the play, but also on your behalf to take the part herself! Orge, let me look you straight in the face! But you are not a fool. You are a man like another. Yet you do not realize what a monstrous thing you are proposing to me!”
“Ah, well!” he replied with his usual smile, which he had already employed to laugh at my na?vet, “will you undertake simply to convey our conversation to her as far as your indignant exit just now? I authorize you to do so. That does not make you into the accomplice of any infamy. You are going to see an old friend you have somewhat neglected. Nothing can be more natural, can it? You talk of the rain and the fine weather. My name is mentioned and you repeat our conversation exactly, beginning like this: What do you think Jacques dared to ask 285me? You will then see what answer she will give.”
Was it the continuation of the habitual empire his vitality had exercised from our college days over my doubts? Was there concealed within me a secret desire to see Camille again, a curiosity to know what the Blue Duchess of two years ago had become? Did I also feel curious to know her reply to Jacques' outrageous proposal? But whatever the reason, I accepted this mission which I considered and still consider monstrous. I called upon Camille, everybody's Camille, to take her the horrible words of her old lover. I saw once more the face I loved so well, but now it was framed in ignoble luxury which contrasted so cruelly to my mind with the proud and humble simplicity of the Rue de la Barouillre! Not one of those pieces of furniture in those former apartments in that old street but told of a noble act of her who did not wish to sell her beauty, or of her mother who had saved the honour of their name by the heroic sacrifice of her fortune. There was not a room in the sumptuous house, that home of infamy where she lived now in the Avenue de Villiers, like my fashionable colleagues, which did not tell of one of her prostitutions.
Was it indeed the woman who, when I last saw her, had not dared to raise her veil, as if she were afraid I should see the traces on her pale cheeks of Tournade's caresses? Yes, it was the same woman who now received me laughing in insolent bravado with not a trace of embarrassment; and 286she was still beautiful, adorably beautiful, with her fine and delicate beauty, which I believe would never have deserted her whatever her surroundings; but she was now so provoking, so shameless!
Not a word, not a blush, not a falter betrayed that she felt any emotion at seeing in me the witness of what must remain to her a perpetual memory. She lit, while she listened to me, an Egyptian cigarette of tobacco the colour of her hair, and smoked it, exhaling the bluish smoke through her delicate nostrils, with wide open eyes between her eyelashes which had been slightly eaten away by the crayon she used. Her mouth looked too red from the rouge of the night before; her cheeks were fuller and her throat was larger; and her more opulent lips were defined by a dressing-gown which was a costume of blue stuff worked and embroidered with silver. I began as a matter of politeness by giving her a brief account of my travels, my work and my return; then I broached the real object of my visit, and I conveyed to her brutally, without evasion, Molan's proposal.
“Is he cad enough!” she said shrugging her supple shoulders. “Is he cad enough!” For a moment I hoped that a nausea of disgust would prove to me that the old Camille was not dead. But no, she went on after a brief silence: “If there is really a fine part for me, tell him to send or bring me the play. He is so very clever when he is clever! Have you read the play? Is he satisfied with it? You know I am really in need of a fine part. So is he, for since he has become wealthy, 287he is allowing himself to be forgotten. Between the two of us I will answer for its success: his prose is so tender and I interpret it so well!”
Not a vestige of indignation did she feel, that indignation I had felt at knowing that the sorrowful romance of her irreparable downfall was profaned! Hardly a vestige of malice did she show against Jacques, that malice he himself expected! From her clear eyes which retained the colour, the transparent purity, of the days of her innocence, I now saw her smile at the fine part, as I had seen Jacques smile on the subject of the play. Then it was I really understood the reason I should never be a great artist. For themfor him as I have always known him, for her as she has become after her first experience, their entire life, hearts included, is only an opportunity for producing the special act they have to produce, the precious secretion which they make, as the bee does honey, as the spider does its web, by an instinct blind and ferocious as all instincts are.
Love, hate, joy and sorrow is the soil to make the flower of their talent grow, this flower of delicacy and of passion, for which they do not hesitate a moment to kill in themselves all real delicacy and living passion. For a word to speak on the stage, for a phrase to write in a book, this woman and this man would sell their father and their motherCamille had not even mentioned hers; they would sell their friend, their child, and their sweetest memory. I, who have spent my life in feeling what they express so well, he in black 288and white, she by gestures and in moving accents, only succeed in paralysing myself with that which exalts these expressive natures; in exhausting myself with that which nourishes these souls of prey. Does destiny then will it that artists, little or great, be of necessity distributed between the two classes, those who transcribe marvellously without feeling the passions which the other class feels without power to transcribe? Was Jacques right in saying that his cruelty to Camille by giving her memories would also give her talent? A fine part! A good play! Really we do not complain at remaining obscure and mediocre, if this obscurity and mediocrity are the condition for real feeling. Besides we have no choice.