By Emile Zola
Translated and edited by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
"FRUITFULNESS" is the first of a series of four works in which M. Zola proposes to embody what he considers to be the four cardinal principles of human life. These works spring from the previous series of The Three Cities: "Lourdes," "Rome," and "Paris," which dealt with the principles of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The last scene in "Paris," when Marie, Pierre Froment's wife, takes her boy in her arms and consecrates him, so to say, to the city of labor and thought, furnishes the necessary transition from one series to the other. "Fruitfulness," says M. Zola, "creates the home. Thence springs the city. From the idea of citizenship comes that of the fatherland; and love of country, in minds fed by science, leads to the conception of a wider and vaster fatherland, comprising all the peoples of the earth. Of these three stages in the progress of mankind, the fourth still remains to be attained. I have thought then of writing, as it were, a poem in four volumes, in four chants, in which I shall endeavor to sum up the philosophy of all my work. The first of these volumes is 'Fruitfulness'; the second will be called 'Work'; the third, 'Truth'; the last, 'Justice.' In 'Fruitfulness' the hero's name is Matthew. In the next work it will be Luke; in 'Truth,' Mark; and in 'justice,' John. The children of my brain will, like the four Evangelists preaching the gospel, diffuse the religion of future society, which will be founded on Fruitfulness, Work, Truth, and Justice."
This, then, is M. Zola's reply to the cry repeatedly raised by his hero, Abbe Pierre Froment, in the pages of "Lourdes," "Paris," and "Rome": "A new religion, a new religion!" Critics of those works were careful to point out that no real answer was ever returned to the Abbe's despairing call; and it must be confessed that one must yet wait for the greater part of that answer, since "Fruitfulness," though complete as a narrative, forms but a portion of the whole. It is only after the publication of the succeeding volumes that one will be able to judge how far M. Zola's doctrines and theories in their ensemble may appeal to the requirements of the world.
While "Fruitfulness," as I have said, constitutes a first instalment of M. Zola's conception of a social religion, it embodies a good deal else. The idea of writing some such work first occurred to him many years ago. In 1896 he contributed an article to the Paris Figaro, in which he said: "For some ten years now I have been haunted by the idea of a novel, of which I shall, doubtless, never write the first page.... That novel would have been called 'Wastage'... and I should have pleaded in it in favor of all the rights of life, with all the passion which I may have in my heart."* M. Zola's article then proceeds to discuss the various social problems, theories, and speculations which are set forth here and there in the present work. Briefly, the genesis of "Fruitfulness" lies in the article I have quoted.
* See Nouvelle Campagne (1896), par Emile Zola. Paris, 1897, pp. 217-228.
"Fruitfulness" is a book to be judged from several standpoints. It would be unjust and absurd to judge it from one alone, such, for instance, as that of the new social religion to which I have referred. It must be looked at notably as a tract for the times in relation to certain grievous evils from which France and other countries—though more particularly France—are undoubtedly suffering. And it may be said that some such denunciation of those evils was undoubtedly necessary, and that nobody was better placed to pen that denunciation than M. Zola, who, alone of all French writers nowadays, commands universal attention. Whatever opinion may be held of his writings, they have to be reckoned with. Thus, in preparing "Fruitfulness," he was before all else discharging a patriotic duty, and that duty he took in hand in an hour of cruel adversity, when to assist a great cause he withdrew from France and sought for a time a residence in England, where for eleven months I was privileged to help him in maintaining his incognito. "Fruitfulness" was entirely written in England, begun in a Surrey country house, and finished at the Queen's Hotel, Norwood.
It would be superfluous for me to enter here into all the questions which M. Zola raises in his pages. The evils from which France suffers in relation to the stagnancy of its population, are well known, and that their continuance—if continuance there be—will mean the downfall of the country from its position as one of the world's great powers before the close of the twentieth century, is a mathematical certainty. That M. Zola, in order to combat those evils, and to do his duty as a good citizen anxious to prevent the decline of his country, should have dealt with his subject with the greatest frankness and outspokenness, was only natural. Moreover, absolute freedom of speech exists in France, which is not the case elsewhere. Thus, when I first perused the original proofs of M. Zola's work, I came to the conclusion that any version of it in the English language would be well-nigh impossible. For some time I remained of that opinion, and I made a statement to that effect in a leading literary journal. Subsequently, however, my views became modified. "The man who is ridiculous," wrote a French poet, Barthelemy, "is he whose opinions never change," and thus I at last reverted to a task from which I had turned aside almost in despair.
Various considerations influenced me, and among them was the thought that if "Fruitfulness" were not presented to the public in an English dress, M. Zola's new series would remain incomplete, decapitated so far as British and American readers were concerned. After all, the criticisms dealing with the French original were solely directed against matters of form, the mould in which some part of the work was cast. Its high moral purpose was distinctly recognized by several even of its most bitter detractors. For me the problem was how to retain the whole ensemble of the narrative and the essence of the lessons which the work inculcates, while recasting some portion of it and sacrificing those matters of form to which exception was taken. It is not for me to say whether I have succeeded in the task; but I think that nothing in any degree offensive to delicate susceptibilities will be found in this present version of M. Zola's book.
The English reviews of the French original showed that if certain portions of it were deemed indiscreet, it none the less teemed with admirable and even delightful pages. Among the English reviewers were two well-known lady writers, Madame Darmesteter (formerly Miss Mary Robinson), and Miss Hannah Lynch. And the former remarked in one part of her critique: "Even this short review reveals how honest, how moral, how human and comely is the fable of Fecondite,"* while the latter expressed the view that the work was "eminently, pugnaciously virtuous in M. Zola's strictly material conception of virtue." And again: "The pages that tell the story of Mathieu and Marianne, it must be admitted, are as charming as possible. They have a bloom, a beauty, a fragrance we never expected to find in M. Zola's work. The tale is a simple one: the cheerful conquest of fortune and the continual birth of offspring."**
* Manchester Guardian, October 27, 1899.
** Fortnightly Review, January 1900.
Of course, these lady critics did not favor certain features of the original, and one of them, indeed, referred to the evil denounced by M. Zola as a mere evil of the hour, whereas it has been growing and spreading for half a century, gradually sapping all the vitality of France. But beside that evil, beside the downfall of the families it attacks, M. Zola portrays the triumph of rectitude, the triumph which follows faith in the powers of life, and observance of the law of universal labor. "Fruitfulness" contains charming pictures of homely married life, delightful glimpses of childhood and youth: the first smile, the first step, the first word, followed by the playfulness and the flirtations of boyhood, and the happiness which waits on the espousals of those who truly love. And the punishment of the guilty is awful, and the triumph of the righteous is the greatest that can be conceived. All those features have been retained, so far as my abilities have allowed, in the present version, which will at the same time, I think, give the reader unacquainted with the French language a general idea of M. Zola's views on one of the great questions of the age, as well as all the essential portions of a strongly conceived narrative.
E. A. V.
MERTON, SURREY, ENGLAND: April, 1900.
THAT morning, in the little pavilion of Chantebled, on the verge of the woods, where they had now been installed for nearly a month, Mathieu was making all haste in order that he might catch the seven-o'clock train which every day conveyed him from Janville to Paris. It was already half-past six, and there were fully two thousand paces from the pavilion to Janville. Afterwards came a railway journey of three-quarters of an hour, and another journey of at least equal duration through Paris, from the Northern Railway terminus to the Boulevard de Grenelle. He seldom reached his office at the factory before half-past eight o'clock.
He had just kissed the children. Fortunately they were asleep; otherwise they would have linked their arms about his neck, laughed and kissed him, being ever unwilling to let him go. And as he hastily returned to the principal bedroom, he found his wife, Marianne, in bed there, but awake and sitting up. She had risen a moment before in order to pull back a curtain, and all the glow of that radiant May morning swept in, throwing a flood of gay sunshine over the fresh and healthy beauty of her four-and-twenty years. He, who was three years the elder, positively adored her.
"You know, my darling," said he, "I must make haste, for I fear I may miss the train—and so manage as well as you can. You still have thirty sous left, haven't you?"
She began to laugh, looking charming with her bare arms and her loose-flowing dark hair. The ever-recurring pecuniary worries of the household left her brave and joyous. Yet she had been married at seventeen, her husband at twenty, and they already had to provide for four children.
"Oh! we shall be all right," said she. "It's the end of the month to-day, and you'll receive your money to-night. I'll settle our little debts at Janville to-morrow. There are only the Lepailleurs, who worry me with their bill for milk and eggs, for they always look as if they fancied one meant to rob them. But with thirty sous, my dear! why, we shall have quite a high time of it!"
She was still laughing as she held out her firm white arms for the customary morning good-by.
"Run off, since you are in a hurry. I will go to meet you at the little bridge to-night."
"No, no, I insist on your going to bed! You know very well that even if I catch the quarter-to-eleven-o'clock train, I cannot reach Janville before half-past eleven. Ah! what a day I have before me! I had to promise the Moranges that I would take dejeuner with them; and this evening Beauchene is entertaining a customer—a business dinner, which I'm obliged to attend. So go to bed, and have a good sleep while you are waiting for me."
She gently nodded, but would give no positive promise. "Don't forget to call on the landlord," she added, "to tell him that the rain comes into the children's bedroom. It's not right that we should be soaked here as if we were on the high-way, even if those millionaires, the Seguins du Hordel, do let us have this place for merely six hundred francs a year."
"Ah, yes! I should have forgotten that. I will call on them, I promise you."
Then Mathieu took her in his arms, and there was no ending to their leave-taking. He still lingered. She had begun to laugh again, while giving him many a kiss in return for his own. There was all the love of bounding health between them, the joy that springs from the most perfect union, as when man and wife are but one both in flesh and in soul.
"Run off, run off, darling! Remember to tell Constance that, before she goes into the country, she ought to run down here some Sunday with Maurice."
"Yes, yes, I will tell her—till to-night, darling."
But he came back once more, caught her in a tight embrace, and pressed to her lips a long, loving kiss, which she returned with her whole heart. And then he hurried away.
He usually took an omnibus on his arrival at the Northern Railway terminus. But on the days when only thirty sous remained at home he bravely went through Paris on foot. It was, too, a very fine walk by way of the Rue la Fayette, the Opera-house, the Boulevards, the Rue Royale, and then, after the Place de la Concorde, the Cours la Reine, the Alma bridge, and the Quai d'Orsay.
Beauchene's works were at the very end of the Quai d'Orsay, between the Rue de la Federation and the Boulevard de Grenelle. There was hereabouts a large square plot, at one end of which, facing the quay, stood a handsome private house of brickwork with white stone dressings, that had been erected by Leon Beauchene, father of Alexandre, the present master of the works. From the balconies one could perceive the houses which were perched aloft in the midst of greenery on the height of Passy, beyond the Seine; whilst on the right arose the campanile of the Trocadero palace. On one side, skirting the Rue de la Federation, one could still see a garden and a little house, which had been the modest dwelling of Leon Beauchene in the heroic days of desperate toil when he had laid the foundations of his fortune. Then the factory buildings and sheds, quite a mass of grayish structures, overtopped by two huge chimneys, occupied both the back part of the ground and that which fringed the Boulevard de Grenelle, the latter being shut off by long windowless walls. This important and well-known establishment manufactured chiefly agricultural appliances, from the most powerful machines to those ingenious and delicate implements on which particular care must be bestowed if perfection is to be attained. In addition to the hundreds of men who worked there daily, there were some fifty women, burnishers and polishers.
The entry to the workshops and offices was in the Rue de la Federation, through a large carriage way, whence one perceived the far-spreading yard, with its paving stones invariably black and often streaked by rivulets of steaming water. Dense smoke arose from the high chimneys, strident jets of steam emerged from the roof, whilst a low rumbling and a shaking of the ground betokened the activity within, the ceaseless bustle of labor.
It was thirty-five minutes past eight by the big clock of the central building when Mathieu crossed the yard towards the office which he occupied as chief designer. For eight years he had been employed at the works where, after a brilliant and special course of study, he had made his beginning as assistant draughtsman when but nineteen years old, receiving at that time a salary of one hundred francs a month. His father, Pierre Froment,* had four sons by Marie his wife—Jean the eldest, then Mathieu, Marc, and Luc—and while leaving them free to choose a particular career he had striven to give each of them some manual calling. Leon Beauchene, the founder of the works, had been dead a year, and his son Alexandre had succeeded him and married Constance Meunier, daughter of a very wealthy wall-paper manufacturer of the Marais, at the time when Mathieu entered the establishment, the master of which was scarcely five years older than himself. It was there that Mathieu had become acquainted with a poor cousin of Alexandre's, Marianne, then sixteen years old, whom he had married during the following year.
* Of Lourdes, Rome, and Paris.
Marianne, when only twelve, had become dependent upon her uncle, Leon Beauchene. After all sorts of mishaps a brother of the latter, one Felix Beauchene, a man of adventurous mind but a blunderhead, had gone to Algeria with his wife and daughter, there to woo fortune afresh; and the farm he had established was indeed prospering when, during a sudden revival of Arab brigandage, both he and his wife were murdered and their home was destroyed. Thus the only place of refuge for the little girl, who had escaped miraculously, was the home of her uncle, who showed her great kindness during the two years of life that remained to him. With her, however, were Alexandre, whose companionship was rather dull, and his younger sister, Seraphine, a big, vicious, and flighty girl of eighteen, who, as it happened, soon left the house amid a frightful scandal—an elopement with a certain Baron Lowicz, a genuine baron, but a swindler and forger, to whom it became necessary to marry her. She then received a dowry of 300,000 francs. Alexandre, after his father's death, made a money match with Constance, who brought him half a million francs, and Marianne then found herself still more a stranger, still more isolated beside her new cousin, a thin, dry, authoritative woman, who ruled the home with absolute sway. Mathieu was there, however, and a few months sufficed: fine, powerful, and healthy love sprang up between the young people; there was no lightning flash such as throws the passion-swayed into each other's arms, but esteem, tenderness, faith, and that mutual conviction of happiness in reciprocal bestowal which tends to indissoluble marriage. And they were delighted at marrying penniless, at bringing one another but their full hearts forever and forever. The only change in Mathieu's circumstances was an increase of salary to two hundred francs a month. True, his new cousin by marriage just vaguely hinted at a possible partnership, but that would not be till some very much later date.
As it happened Mathieu Froment gradually became indispensable at the works. The young master, Alexandre Beauchene, passed through an anxious crisis. The dowry which his father had been forced to draw from his coffers in order to get Seraphine married, and other large expenses which had been occasioned by the girl's rebellious and perverse conduct, had left but little working capital in the business. Then, too, on the morrow of Leon Beauchene's death it was found that, with the carelessness often evinced in such matters, he had neglected to leave a will; so that Seraphine eagerly opposed her brother's interests, demanding her personal share of the inheritance, and even suggesting the sale of the works. The property had narrowly escaped being cut up, annihilated. And Alexandre Beauchene still shivered with terror and anger at the recollection of that time, amidst all his delight at having at last rid himself of his sister by paying her in money the liberally estimated value of her share. It was in order to fill up the void thus created in his finances that he had espoused the half-million represented by Constance—an ugly creature, as he himself bitterly acknowledged, coarse male as he was. Truth to tell, she was so thin, so scraggy, that before consenting to make her his wife he had often called her "that bag of bones." But, on the other hand, thanks to his marriage with her, all his losses were made good in five or six years' time; the business of the works even doubled, and great prosperity set in. And Mathieu, having become a most active and necessary coadjutor, ended by taking the post of chief designer, at a salary of four thousand two hundred francs per annum.
Morange, the chief accountant, whose office was near Mathieu's, thrust his head through the doorway as soon as he heard the young man installing himself at his drawing-table. "I say, my dear Froment," he exclaimed, "don't forget that you are to take dejeuner with us."
"Yes, yes, my good Morange, it's understood. I will look in for you at twelve o'clock."
Then Mathieu very carefully scrutinized a wash drawing of a very simple but powerful steam thresher, an invention of his own, on which he had been working for some time past, and which a big landowner of Beauce, M. Firon-Badinier, was to examine during the afternoon.
The door of the master's private room was suddenly thrown wide open and Beauchene appeared—tall, with a ruddy face, a narrow brow, and big brown, protruding eyes. He had a rather large nose, thick lips, and a full black beard, on which he bestowed great care, as he likewise did on his hair, which was carefully combed over his head in order to conceal the serious baldness that was already coming upon him, although he was scarcely two-and-thirty. Frock-coated the first thing in the morning, he was already smoking a big cigar; and his loud voice, his peals of gayety, his bustling ways, all betokened an egotist and good liver still in his prime, a man for whom money—capital increased and increased by the labor of others—was the one only sovereign power.
"Ah! ah! it's ready, is it not?" said he; "Monsieur Firon-Badinier has again written me that he will be here at three o'clock. And you know that I'm going to take you to the restaurant with him this evening; for one can never induce those fellows to give orders unless one plies them with good wine. It annoys Constance to have it done here; and, besides, I prefer to entertain those people in town. You warned Marianne, eh?"
"Certainly. She knows that I shall return by the quarter-to-eleven-o'clock train."
Beauchene had sunk upon a chair: "Ah! my dear fellow, I'm worn out," he continued; "I dined in town last night; I got to bed only at one o'clock. And there was a terrible lot of work waiting for me this morning. One positively needs to be made of iron."
Until a short time before he had shown himself a prodigious worker, endowed with really marvellous energy and strength. Moreover, he had given proof of unfailing business instinct with regard to many profitable undertakings. Invariably the first to appear at the works, he looked after everything, foresaw everything, filling the place with his bustling zeal, and doubling his output year by year. Recently, however, fatigue had been gaining ground on him. He had always sought plenty of amusement, even amid the hard-working life he led. But nowadays certain "sprees," as he called them, left him fairly exhausted.
He gazed at Mathieu: "You seem fit enough, you do!" he said. "How is it that you manage never to look tired?"
As a matter of fact, the young man who stood there erect before his drawing-table seemed possessed of the sturdy health of a young oak tree. Tall and slender, he had the broad, lofty, tower-like brow of the Froments. He wore his thick hair cut quite short, and his beard, which curled slightly, in a point. But the chief expression of his face rested in his eyes, which were at once deep and bright, keen and thoughtful, and almost invariably illumined by a smile. They showed him to be at once a man of thought and of action, very simple, very gay, and of a kindly disposition.
"Oh! I," he answered with a laugh, "I behave reasonably."
But Beauchene protested: "No, you don't! The man who already has four children when he is only twenty-seven can't claim to be reasonable. And twins too—your Blaise and your Denis to begin with! And then your boy Ambroise and your little girl Rose. Without counting the other little girl that you lost at her birth. Including her, you would now have had five youngsters, you wretched fellow! No, no, I'm the one who behaves reasonably—I, who have but one child, and, like a prudent, sensible man, desire no others!"
He often made such jesting remarks as these, through which filtered his genuine indignation; for he deemed the young couple to be over-careless of their interests, and declared that the prolificness of his cousin Marianne was quite scandalous.
Accustomed as Mathieu was to these attacks, which left him perfectly serene, he went on laughing, without even giving a reply, when a workman abruptly entered the room—one who was currently called "old Moineaud," though he was scarcely three-and-forty years of age. Short and thick-set, he had a bullet head, a bull's neck, and face and hands scarred and dented by more than a quarter of a century of toil. By calling he was a fitter, and he had come to submit a difficulty which had just arisen in the piecing together of a reaping machine. But, his employer, who was still angrily thinking of over-numerous families, did not give him time to explain his purpose.
"And you, old Moineaud, how many children have you?" he inquired.
"Seven, Monsieur Beauchene," the workman replied, somewhat taken aback. "I've lost three."
"So, including them, you would now have ten? Well, that's a nice state of things! How can you do otherwise than starve?"
Moineaud began to laugh like the gay thriftless Paris workman that he was. The little ones? Well, they grew up without his even noticing it, and, indeed, he was really fond of them, so long as they remained at home. And, besides, they worked as they grew older, and brought a little money in. However, he preferred to answer his employer with a jest which set them all laughing.
After he had explained the difficulty with the reaper, the others followed him to examine the work for themselves. They were already turning into a passage, when Beauchene, seeing the door of the women's workshop open, determined to pass that way, so that he might give his customary look around. It was a long, spacious place, where the polishers, in smocks of black serge, sat in double rows polishing and grinding their pieces at little work-boards. Nearly all of them were young, a few were pretty, but most had low and common faces. An animal odor and a stench of rancid oil pervaded the place.
The regulations required perfect silence there during work. Yet all the girls were gossiping. As soon, however, as the master's approach was signalled the chatter abruptly ceased. There was but one girl who, having her head turned, and thus seeing nothing of Beauchene, went on furiously abusing a companion, with whom she had previously started a dispute. She and the other were sisters, and, as it happened, daughters of old Moineaud. Euphrasie, the younger one, she who was shouting, was a skinny creature of seventeen, light-haired, with a long, lean, pointed face, uncomely and malignant; whereas the elder, Norine, barely nineteen, was a pretty girl, a blonde like her sister, but having a milky skin, and withal plump and sturdy, showing real shoulders, arms, and hips, and one of those bright sunshiny faces, with wild hair and black eyes, all the freshness of the Parisian hussy, aglow with the fleeting charm of youth.
Norine was ever quarrelling with Euphrasie, and was pleased to have her caught in a misdeed; so she allowed her to rattle on. And it thereupon became necessary for Beauchene to intervene. He habitually evinced great severity in the women's workshop, for he had hitherto held the view that an employer who jested with his workgirls was a lost man. Thus, in spite of the low character of which he was said to give proof in his walks abroad, there had as yet never been the faintest suggestion of scandal in connection with him and the women in his employ.
"Well, now, Mademoiselle Euphrasie!" he exclaimed; "do you intend to be quiet? This is quite improper. You are fined twenty sous, and if I hear you again you will be locked out for a week."
The girl had turned round in consternation. Then, stifling her rage, she cast a terrible glance at her sister, thinking that she might at least have warned her. But the other, with the discreet air of a pretty wench conscious of her attractiveness, continued smiling, looking her employer full in the face, as if certain that she had nothing to fear from him. Their eyes met, and for a couple of seconds their glances mingled. Then he, with flushed cheeks and an angry air, resumed, addressing one and all: "As soon as the superintendent turns her back you chatter away like so many magpies. Just be careful, or you will have to deal with me!"
Moineaud, the father, had witnessed the scene unmoved, as if the two girls—she whom the master had scolded, and she who slyly gazed at him—were not his own daughters. And now the round was resumed and the three men quitted the women's workshop amidst profound silence, which only the whir of the little grinders disturbed.
When the fitting difficulty had been overcome downstairs and Moineaud had received his orders, Beauchene returned to his residence accompanied by Mathieu, who wished to convey Marianne's invitation to Constance. A gallery connected the black factory buildings with the luxurious private house on the quay. And they found Constance in a little drawing-room hung with yellow satin, a room to which she was very partial. She was seated near a sofa, on which lay little Maurice, her fondly prized and only child, who had just completed his seventh year.
"Is he ill?" inquired Mathieu.
The child seemed sturdily built, and he greatly resembled his father, though he had a more massive jaw. But he was pale and there was a faint ring round his heavy eyelids. His mother, that "bag of bones," a little dark woman, yellow and withered at six-and-twenty, looked at him with an expression of egotistical pride.
"Oh, no! he's never ill," she answered. "Only he has been complaining of his legs. And so I made him lie down, and I wrote last night to ask Dr. Boutan to call this morning."
"Pooh!" exclaimed Beauchene with a hearty laugh, "women are all the same! A child who is as strong as a Turk! I should just like anybody to tell me that he isn't strong."
Precisely at that moment in walked Dr. Boutan, a short, stout man of forty, with very keen eyes set in a clean-shaven, heavy, but extremely good-natured face. He at once examined the child, felt and sounded him; then with his kindly yet serious air he said: "No, no, there's nothing. It is the mere effect of growth. The lad has become rather pale through spending the winter in Paris, but a few months in the open air, in the country, will set him right again."
"I told you so!" cried Beauchene.
Constance had kept her son's little hand in her own. He had again stretched himself out and closed his eyes in a weary way, whilst she, in her happiness, continued smiling. Whenever she chose she could appear quite pleasant-looking, however unprepossessing might be her features. The doctor had seated himself, for he was fond of lingering and chatting in the houses of friends. A general practitioner, and one who more particularly tended the ailments of women and children, he was naturally a confessor, knew all sorts of secrets, and was quite at home in family circles. It was he who had attended Constance at the birth of that much-spoiled only son, and Marianne at the advent of the four children she already had.
Mathieu had remained standing, awaiting an opportunity to deliver his invitation. "Well," said he, "if you are soon leaving for the country, you must come one Sunday to Janville. My wife would be so delighted to see you there, to show you our encampment."
Then he jested respecting the bareness of the lonely pavilion which they occupied, recounting that as yet they possessed only a dozen plates and five egg-cups. But Beauchene knew the pavilion, for he went shooting in the neighborhood every winter, having a share in the tenancy of some extensive woods, the shooting-rights over which had been parcelled out by the owner.
"Seguin," said he, "is a friend of mine. I have lunched at your pavilion. It's a perfect hovel!"
Then Constance, contemptuous at the idea of such poverty, recalled what Madame Seguin—to whom she referred as Valentine—had told her of the dilapidated condition of the old shooting-box. But the doctor, after listening with a smile, broke in:
"Mme. Seguin is a patient of mine. At the time when her last child was born I advised her to stay at that pavilion. The atmosphere is wholesome, and children ought to spring up there like couch-grass."
Thereupon, with a sonorous laugh, Beauchene began to jest in his habitual way, remarking that if the doctor were correct there would probably be no end to Mathieu's progeny, numerous as it already was. But this elicited an angry protest from Constance, who on the subject of children held the same views as her husband himself professed in his more serious moments.
Mathieu thoroughly understood what they both meant. They regarded him and his wife with derisive pity, tinged with anger.
The advent of the young couple's last child, little Rose, had already increased their expenses to such a point that they had been obliged to seek refuge in the country, in a mere pauper's hovel. And yet, in spite of Beauchene's sneers and Constance's angry remarks, Mathieu outwardly remained very calm. Constance and Marianne had never been able to agree; they differed too much in all respects; and for his part he laughed off every attack, unwilling as he was to let anger master him, lest a rupture should ensue.
But Beauchene waxed passionate on the subject. That question of the birth-rate and the present-day falling off in population was one which he thought he had completely mastered, and on which he held forth at length authoritatively. He began by challenging the impartiality of Boutan, whom he knew to be a fervent partisan of large families. He made merry with him, declaring that no medical man could possibly have a disinterested opinion on the subject. Then he brought out all that he vaguely knew of Malthusianism, the geometrical increase of births, and the arithmetical increase of food-substances, the earth becoming so populous as to be reduced to a state of famine within two centuries. It was the poor's own fault, said he, if they led a life of starvation; they had only to limit themselves to as many children as they could provide for. The rich were falsely accused of social wrong-doing; they were by no means responsible for poverty. Indeed, they were the only reasonable people; they alone, by limiting their families, acted as good citizens should act. And he became quite triumphant, repeating that he knew of no cause for self-reproach, and that his ever-growing fortune left him with an easy conscience. It was so much the worse for the poor, if they were bent on remaining poor. In vain did the doctor urge that the Malthusian theories were shattered, that the calculations had been based on a possible, not a real, increase of population; in vain too did he prove that the present-day economic crisis, the evil distribution of wealth under the capitalist system, was the one hateful cause of poverty, and that whenever labor should be justly apportioned among one and all the fruitful earth would easily provide sustenance for happy men ten times more numerous than they are now. The other refused to listen to anything, took refuge in his egotism, declared that all those matters were no concern of his, that he felt no remorse at being rich, and that those who wished to become rich had, in the main, simply to do as he had done.
"Then, logically, this is the end of France, eh?" Boutan remarked maliciously. "The number of births ever increases in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere, while it decreases in a terrible way among us. Numerically the rank we occupy in Europe is already very inferior to what it formerly was; and yet number means power more than ever nowadays. It has been calculated that an average of four children per family is necessary in order that population may increase and the strength of a nation be maintained. You have but one child; you are a bad patriot."
At this Beauchene flew into a tantrum, quite beside himself, and gasped: "I a bad patriot! I, who kill myself with hard work! I, who even export French machinery!... Yes, certainly I see families, acquaintances around me who may well allow themselves four children; and I grant that they deserve censure when they have no families. But as for me, my dear doctor, it is impossible. You know very well that in my position I absolutely can't."
Then, for the hundredth time, he gave his reasons, relating how the works had narrowly escaped being cut into pieces, annihilated, simply because he had unfortunately been burdened with a sister. Seraphine had behaved abominably. There had been first her dowry; next her demands for the division of the property on their father's death; and the works had been saved only by means of a large pecuniary sacrifice which had long crippled their prosperity. And people imagined that he would be as imprudent as his father! Why, if Maurice should have a brother or a sister, he might hereafter find himself in the same dire embarrassment, in which the family property might already have been destroyed. No, no! He would not expose the boy to the necessity of dividing the inheritance in accordance with badly framed laws. He was resolved that Maurice should be the sole master of the fortune which he himself had derived from his father, and which he would transmit to his heir increased tenfold. For his son he dreamt of supreme wealth, a colossal fortune, such as nowadays alone ensures power.
Mathieu, refraining from any intervention, listened and remained grave; for this question of the birth-rate seemed to him a frightful one, the foremost of all questions, deciding the destiny of mankind and the world. There has never been any progress but such as has been determined by increase of births. If nations have accomplished evolutions, if civilization has advanced, it is because the nations have multiplied and subsequently spread through all the countries of the earth. And will not to-morrow's evolution, the advent of truth and justice, be brought about by the constant onslaught of the greater number, the revolutionary fruitfulness of the toilers and the poor?
It is quite true that Mathieu did not plainly say all these things to himself; indeed, he felt slightly ashamed of the four children that he already had, and was disturbed by the counsels of prudence addressed to him by the Beauchenes. But within him there struggled his faith in life, his belief that the greatest possible sum of life must bring about the greatest sum of happiness.
At last, wishing to change the subject, he bethought himself of Marianne's commission, and at the first favorable opportunity exclaimed: "Well, we shall rely on you, Marianne and I, for Sunday after next, at Janville."
But there was still no answer, for just then a servant came to say that a woman with an infant in her arms desired to see Madame. And Beauchene, having recognized the wife of Moineaud, the fitter, bade her come in. Boutan, who had now risen, was prompted by curiosity to remain a little longer.
La Moineaude, short and fat like her husband, was a woman of about forty, worn out before her time, with ashen face, pale eyes, thin faded hair, and a weak mouth which already lacked many teeth. A large family had been too much for her; and, moreover, she took no care of herself.
"Well, my good woman," Constance inquired, "what do you wish with me?"
But La Moineaude remained quite scared by the sight of all those people whom she had not expected to find there. She said nothing. She had hoped to speak to the lady privately.
"Is this your last-born?" Beauchene asked her as he looked at the pale, puny child on her arm.
"Yes, monsieur, it's my little Alfred; he's ten months old and I've had to wean him, for I couldn't feed him any longer. I had nine others before this one, but three are dead. My eldest son, Eugene, is a soldier in Tonquin. You have my two big girls, Euphrasie and Norine, at the works. And I have three left at home—Victor, who is now fifteen, then Cecile and Irma, who are ten and seven. After Irma I thought I had done with children for good, and I was well pleased. But, you see, this urchin came! And I, forty too—it's not just! The good Lord must surely have abandoned us."
Then Dr. Boutan began to question her. He avoided looking at the Beauchenes, but there was a malicious twinkle in his little eyes, and it was evident that he took pleasure in recapitulating the employer's arguments against excessive prolificness. He pretended to get angry and to reproach the Moineauds for their ten wretched children—the boys fated to become food for powder, the girls always liable to misfortune. And he gave the woman to understand that it was her own fault if she was in distress; for people with a tribe of children about them could never become rich. And the poor creature sadly answered that he was quite right, but that no idea of becoming rich could ever have entered their heads. Moineaud knew well enough that he would never be a cabinet minister, and so it was all the same to them how many children they might have on their hands. Indeed, a number proved a help when the youngsters grew old enough to go out to work.
Beauchene had become silent and slowly paced the room. A slight chill, a feeling of uneasiness was springing up, and so Constance made haste to inquire: "Well, my good woman, what is it I can do for you?"
"Mon Dieu, madame, it worries me; it's something which Moineaud didn't dare to ask of Monsieur Beauchene. For my part I hoped to find you alone and beg you to intercede for us. The fact is we should be very, very grateful if our little Victor could only be taken on at the works."
"But he is only fifteen," exclaimed Beauchene. "You must wait till he's sixteen. The law is strict."
"No doubt. Only one might perhaps just tell a little fib. It would be rendering us such a service—"
"No, it is impossible."
Big tears welled into La Moineaude's eyes. And Mathieu, who had listened with passionate interest, felt quite upset. Ah! that wretched toil-doomed flesh that hastened to offer itself without waiting until it was even ripe for work! Ah! the laborer who is prepared to lie, whom hunger sets against the very law designed for his own protection!
When La Moineaude had gone off in despair the doctor continued speaking of juvenile and female labor. As soon as a woman first finds herself a mother she can no longer continue toiling at a factory. Her lying-in and the nursing of her babe force her to remain at home, or else grievous infirmities may ensue for her and her offspring. As for the child, it becomes anemic, sometimes crippled; besides, it helps to keep wages down by being taken to work at a low scale of remuneration. Then the doctor went on to speak of the prolificness of wretchedness, the swarming of the lower classes. Was not the most hateful natality of all that which meant the endless increase of starvelings and social rebels?
"I perfectly understand you," Beauchene ended by saying, without any show of anger, as he abruptly brought his perambulations to an end. "You want to place me in contradiction with myself, and make me confess that I accept Moineaud's seven children and need them, whereas I, with my fixed determination to rest content with an only son, suppress, as it were, a family in order that I may not have to subdivide my estate. France, 'the country of only sons,' as folks say nowadays—that's it, eh? But, my dear fellow, the question is so intricate, and at bottom I am altogether in the right!"
Then he wished to explain things, and clapped his hand to his breast, exclaiming that he was a liberal, a democrat, ready to demand all really progressive measures. He willingly recognized that children were necessary, that the army required soldiers, and the factories workmen. Only he also invoked the prudential duties of the higher classes, and reasoned after the fashion of a man of wealth, a conservative clinging to the fortune he has acquired.
Mathieu meanwhile ended by understanding the brutal truth: Capital is compelled to favor the multiplication of lives foredoomed to wretchedness; in spite of everything it must stimulate the prolificness of the wage-earning classes, in order that its profits may continue. The law is that there must always be an excess of children in order that there may be enough cheap workers. Then also speculation on the wages' ratio wrests all nobility from labor, which is regarded as the worst misfortune a man can be condemned to, when in reality it is the most precious of boons. Such, then, is the cancer preying upon mankind. In countries of political equality and economical inequality the capitalist regime, the faulty distribution of wealth, at once restrains and precipitates the birth-rate by perpetually increasing the wrongful apportionment of means. On one side are the rich folk with "only" sons, who continually increase their fortunes; on the other, the poor folk, who, by reason of their unrestrained prolificness, see the little they possess crumble yet more and more. If labor be honored to-morrow, if a just apportionment of wealth be arrived at, equilibrium will be restored. Otherwise social revolution lies at the end of the road.
But Beauchene, in his triumphant manner, tried to show that he possessed great breadth of mind; he admitted the disquieting strides of a decrease of population, and denounced the causes of it—alcoholism, militarism, excessive mortality among infants, and other numerous matters. Then he indicated remedies; first, reductions in taxation, fiscal means in which he had little faith; then freedom to will one's estate as one pleased, which seemed to him more efficacious; a change, too, in the marriage laws, without forgetting the granting of affiliation rights.
However, Boutan ended by interrupting him. "All the legislative measures in the world will do nothing," said the doctor. "Manners and customs, our notions of what is moral and what is not, our very conceptions of the beautiful in life—all must be changed. If France is becoming depopulated, it is because she so chooses. It is simply necessary then for her to choose so no longer. But what a task—a whole world to create anew!"
At this Mathieu raised a superb cry: "Well! we'll create it. I've begun well enough, surely!"
But Constance, after laughing in a constrained way, in her turn thought it as well to change the subject. And so she at last replied to his invitation, saying that she would do her best to go to Janville, though she feared she might not be able to dispose of a Sunday to do so.
Dr. Boutan then took his leave, and was escorted to the door by Beauchene, who still went on jesting, like a man well pleased with life, one who was satisfied with himself and others, and who felt certain of being able to arrange things as might best suit his pleasure and his interests.
An hour later, a few minutes after midday, as Mathieu, who had been delayed in the works, went up to the offices to fetch Morange as he had promised to do, it occurred to him to take a short cut through the women's workshop. And there, in that spacious gallery, already deserted and silent, he came upon an unexpected scene which utterly amazed him. On some pretext or other Norine had lingered there the last, and Beauchene was with her, clasping her around the waist whilst he eagerly pressed his lips to hers. But all at once they caught sight of Mathieu and remained thunderstruck. And he, for his part, fled precipitately, deeply annoyed at having been a surprised witness to such a secret.
MORANGE, 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, as you will see. A bedroom for us and another for Reine. And it is so close to the works too. I get there in four minutes, watch in hand."
He, Morange, was the son of a petty commercial clerk who had died on his stool after forty years of cloistral office-life. And he had married a clerk's daughter, one Valerie Duchemin, the eldest of four girls whose parents' home had been turned into a perfect hell, full of shameful wretchedness and unacknowledgable poverty, through this abominable incumbrance. Valerie, who was good-looking and ambitious, was lucky enough, however, to marry that handsome, honest, and hard-working fellow, Morange, although she was quite without a dowry; and, this accomplished, she indulged in the dream of climbing a little higher up the social ladder, and freeing herself from the loathsome world of petty clerkdom by making the son whom she hoped to have either an advocate or a doctor. Unfortunately the much-desired child proved to be a girl; and Valerie trembled, fearful of finding herself at last with four daughters on her hands, just as her mother had. Her dream thereupon changed, and she resolved to incite her husband onward to the highest posts, so that she might ultimately give her daughter a large dowry, and by this means gain that admittance to superior spheres which she so eagerly desired. Her husband, who was weak and extremely fond of her, ended by sharing her ambition, ever revolving schemes of pride and conquest for her benefit. But he had now been eight years at the Beauchene works, and he still earned but five thousand francs a year. This drove him and his wife to despair. Assuredly it was not at Beauchene's that he would ever make his fortune.
"You see!" he exclaimed, after going a couple of hundred yards with Mathieu along the Boulevard de Grenelle, "it is that new house yonder at the street corner. It has a stylish appearance, eh?"
Mathieu then perceived a lofty modern pile, ornamented with balconies and sculpture work, which looked quite out of place among the poor little houses predominating in the district.
"Why, it is a palace!" he exclaimed, in order to please Morange, who thereupon drew himself up quite proudly.
"You will see the staircase, my dear fellow! Our place, you know, is on the fifth floor. But that is of no consequence with such a staircase, so easy, so soft, that one climbs it almost without knowing."
Thereupon Morange showed his guest into the vestibule as if he were ushering him into a temple. The stucco walls gleamed brightly; there was a carpet on the stairs, and colored glass in the windows. And when, on reaching the fifth story, the cashier opened the door with his latchkey, he repeated, with an air of delight: "You will see, you will see!"
Valerie and Reine must have been on the watch, for they hastened forward. At thirty-two Valerie was still young and charming. She was a pleasant-looking brunette, with a round smiling face in a setting of superb hair. She had a full, round bust, and admirable shoulders, of which her husband felt quite proud whenever she showed herself in a low-necked dress. Reine, at this time twelve years old, was the very portrait of her mother, showing much the same smiling, if rather longer, face under similar black tresses.
"Ah! it is very kind of you to accept our invitation," said Valerie gayly as she pressed both Mathieu's hands. "What a pity that Madame Froment could not come with you! Reine, why don't you relieve the gentleman of his hat?"
Then she immediately continued: "We have a nice light anteroom, you see. Would you like to glance over our flat while the eggs are being boiled? That will always be one thing done, and you will then at least know where you are lunching."
All this was said in such an agreeable way, and Morange on his side smiled so good-naturedly, that Mathieu willingly lent himself to this innocent display of vanity. First came the parlor, the corner room, the walls of which were covered with pearl-gray paper with a design of golden flowers, while the furniture consisted of some of those white lacquered Louis XVI. pieces which makers turn out by the gross. The rosewood piano showed like a big black blot amidst all the rest. Then, overlooking the Boulevard de Grenelle, came Reine's bedroom, pale blue, with furniture of polished pine. Her parents' room, a very small apartment, was at the other end of the flat, separated from the parlor by the dining-room. The hangings adorning it were yellow; and a bedstead, a washstand, and a wardrobe, all of thuya, had been crowded into it. Finally the classic "old carved oak" triumphed in the dining-room, where a heavily gilded hanging lamp flashed like fire above the table, dazzling in its whiteness.
"Why, it's delightful," Mathieu, repeated, by way of politeness; "why, it's a real gem of a place."
In their excitement, father, mother, and daughter never ceased leading him hither and thither, explaining matters to him and making him feel the things. He was most struck, by the circumstance that the place recalled something he had seen before; he seemed to be familiar with the arrangement of the drawing-room, and with the way in which the nicknacks in the bedchamber were set out. And all at once he remembered. Influenced by envy and covert admiration, the Moranges, despite themselves, no doubt, had tried to copy the Beauchenes. Always short of money as they were, they could only and by dint of great sacrifices indulge in a species of make-believe luxury. Nevertheless they were proud of it, and, by imitating the envied higher class from afar, they imagined that they drew nearer to it.
"And then," Morange exclaimed, as he opened the dining-room window, "there is also this."
Outside, a balcony ran along the house-front, and at that height the view was really a very fine one, similar to that obtained from the Beauchene mansion but more extensive, the Seine showing in the distance, and the heights of Passy rising above the nearer and lower house-roofs.
Valerie also called attention to the prospect. "It is magnificent, is it not?" said she; "far better than the few trees that one can see from the quay."
The servant was now bringing the boiled eggs and they took their seats at table, while Morange victoriously explained that the place altogether cost him sixteen hundred francs a year. It was cheap indeed, though the amount was a heavy charge on Morange's slender income. Mathieu now began to understand that he had been invited more particularly to admire the new flat, and these worthy people seemed so delighted to triumph over it before him that he took the matter gayly and without thought of spite. There was no calculating ambition in his nature; he envied nothing of the luxury he brushed against in other people's homes, and he was quite satisfied with the snug modest life he led with Marianne and his children. Thus he simply felt surprised at finding the Moranges so desirous of cutting a figure and making money, and looked at them with a somewhat sad smile.
Valerie was wearing a pretty gown of foulard with a pattern of little yellow flowers, while her daughter, Reine, whom she liked to deck out coquettishly, had a frock of blue linen stuff. There was rather too much luxury about the meal also. Soles followed the eggs, and then came cutlets, and afterwards asparagus.
The conversation began with some mention of Janville.
"And so your children are in good health? Oh! they are very fine children indeed. And you really like the country? How funny! I think I should feel dreadfully bored there, for there is too great a lack of amusements. Why, yes, we shall be delighted to go to see you there, since Madame Froment is kind enough to invite us."
Then, as was bound to happen, the talk turned on the Beauchenes. This was a subject which haunted the Moranges, who lived in perpetual admiration of the Beauchenes, though at times they covertly criticised them. Valerie was very proud of being privileged to attend Constance's Saturday "at-homes," and of having been twice invited to dinner by her during the previous winter. She on her side now had a day of her own, Tuesday, and she even gave little private parties, and half ruined herself in providing refreshments at them. As for her acquaintances, she spoke with profound respect of Mme. Seguin du Hordel and that lady's magnificent mansion in the Avenue d'Antin, for Constance had obligingly obtained her an invitation to a ball there. But she was particularly vain of the friendship of Beauchene's sister, Seraphine, whom she invariably called "Madame la Baronne de Lowicz."
"The Baroness came to my at-home one afternoon," she said. "She is so very good-natured and so gay! You knew her formerly, did you not? After her marriage, eh? when she became reconciled to her brother and their wretched disputes about money matters were over. By the way, she has no great liking for Madame Beauchene, as you must know."
Then she again reverted to the manufacturer's wife, declared that little Maurice, however sturdy he might look, was simply puffed out with bad flesh; and she remarked that it would be a terrible blow for the parents if they should lose that only son. The subject of children was thus started, and when Mathieu, laughing, observed that they, the Moranges, had but one child, the cashier protested that it was unfair to compare him with M. Beauchene, who was such a wealthy man. Valerie, for her part, pictured the position of her parents, afflicted with four daughters, who had been obliged to wait months and months for boots and frocks and hats, and had grown up anyhow, in perpetual terror lest they should never find husbands. A family was all very well, but when it happened to consist of daughters the situation became terrible for people of limited means; for if daughters were to be launched properly into life they must have dowries.
"Besides," said she, "I am very ambitious for my husband, and I am convinced that he may rise to a very high position if he will only listen to me. But he must not be saddled with a lot of incumbrances. As things stand, I trust that we may be able to get rich and give Reine a suitable dowry."
Morange, quite moved by this little speech, caught hold of his wife's hand and kissed it. Weak and good-natured as he was, Valerie was really the one with will. It was she who had instilled some ambition into him, and he esteemed her the more for it.
"My wife is a thoroughly good woman, you know, my dear Froment," said he. "She has a good head as well as a good heart."
Then, while Valerie recapitulated her dream of wealth, the splendid flat she would have, the receptions she would hold, and the two months which, like the Beauchenes, she would spend at the seaside every summer, Mathieu looked at her and her husband and pondered their position. Their case was very different from that of old Moineaud, who knew that he would never be a cabinet minister. Morange possibly dreamt that his wife would indeed make him a minister some day. Every petty bourgeois in a democratic community has a chance of rising and wishes to do so. Indeed, there is a universal, ferocious rush, each seeking to push the others aside so that he may the more speedily climb a rung of the social ladder. This general ascent, this phenomenon akin to capillarity, is possible only in a country where political equality and economic inequality prevail; for each has the same right to fortune and has but to conquer it. There is, however, a struggle of the vilest egotism, if one wishes to taste the pleasures of the highly placed, pleasures which are displayed to the gaze of all and are eagerly coveted by nearly everybody in the lower spheres. Under a democratic constitution a nation cannot live happily if its manners and customs are not simple, and if the conditions of life are not virtually equal for one and all. Under other circumstances than these the liberal professions prove all-devouring: there is a rush for public functions; manual toil is regarded with contempt; luxury increases and becomes necessary; and wealth and power are furiously appropriated by assault in order that one may greedily taste the voluptuousness of enjoyment. And in such a state of affairs, children, as Valerie put it, were incumbrances, whereas one needed to be free, absolutely unburdened, if one wished to climb over all one's competitors.
Mathieu also thought of that law of imitation which impels even the least fortunate to impoverish themselves by striving to copy the happy ones of the world. How great the distress which really lurks beneath that envied luxury that is copied at such great cost! All sorts of useless needs are created, and production is turned aside from the strictly necessary. One can no longer express hardship by saying that people lack bread; what they lack in the majority of cases is the superfluous, which they are unable to renounce without imagining that they have gone to the dogs and are in danger of starvation.
At dessert, when the servant was no longer present, Morange, excited by his good meal, became expansive. Glancing at his wife he winked towards their guest, saying:
"Come, he's a safe friend; one may tell him everything."
And when Valerie had consented with a smile and a nod, he went on: "Well, this is the matter, my dear fellow: it is possible that I may soon leave the works. Oh! it's not decided, but I'm thinking of it. Yes, I've been thinking of it for some months past; for, when all is said, to earn five thousand francs a year, after eight years' zeal, and to think that one will never earn much more, is enough to make one despair of life."
"It's monstrous," the young woman interrupted: "it is like breaking one's head intentionally against a wall."
"Well, in such circumstances, my dear friend, the best course is to look out for something elsewhere, is it not? Do you remember Michaud, whom I had under my orders at the works some six years ago? A very intelligent fellow he was. Well, scarcely six years have elapsed since he left us to go to the Credit National, and what do you think he is now earning there? Twelve thousand francs—you hear me—twelve thousand francs!"
The last words rang out like a trumpet-call. The Moranges' eyes dilated with ecstasy. Even the little girl became very red.
"Last March," continued Morange, "I happened to meet Michaud, who told me all that, and showed himself very amiable. He offered to take me with him and help me on in my turn. Only there's some risk to run. He explained to me that I must at first accept three thousand six hundred, so as to rise gradually to a very big figure. But three thousand six hundred! How can one live on that in the meantime, especially now that this flat has increased our expenses?"
At this Valerie broke in impetuously: "'Nothing venture, nothing have!' That's what I keep on repeating to him. Of course I am in favor of prudence; I would never let him do anything rash which might compromise his future. But, at the same time, he can't moulder away in a situation unworthy of him."
"And so you have made up your minds?" asked Mathieu.
"Well, my wife has calculated everything," Morange replied; "and, yes, we have made up our minds, provided, of course, that nothing unforeseen occurs. Besides, it is only in October that any situation will be open at the Credit National. But, I say, my dear friend, keep the matter entirely to yourself, for we don't want to quarrel with the Beauchenes just now."
Then he looked at his watch, for, like a good clerk, he was very punctual, and did not wish to be late at the office. The servant was hurried, the coffee was served, and they were drinking it, boiling hot as it was, when the arrival of a visitor upset the little household and caused everything to be forgotten.
"Oh!" exclaimed Valerie, as she hastily rose, flushed with pride, "Madame la Baronne de Lowicz!"
Seraphine, at this time nine-and-twenty, was red-haired, tall and elegant, with magnificent shoulders which were known to all Paris. Her red lips were wreathed in a triumphant smile, and a voluptuous flame ever shone in her large brown eyes flecked with gold.
"Pray don't disturb yourselves, my friends," said she. "Your servant wanted to show me into the drawing-room, but I insisted on coming in here, because it is rather a pressing matter. I have come to fetch your charming little Reine to take her to a matinee at the Circus."
A fresh explosion of delight ensued. The child remained speechless with joy, whilst the mother exulted and rattled on: "Oh! Madame la Baronne, you are really too kind! You are spoiling the child. But the fact is that she isn't dressed, and you will have to wait a moment. Come, child, make haste, I will help you—ten minutes, you understand—I won't keep you waiting a moment longer."
Seraphine remained alone with the two men. She had made a gesture of surprise on perceiving Mathieu, whose hand, like an old friend, she now shook.
"And you, are you quite well?" she asked.
"Quite well," he answered; and as she sat down near him he instinctively pushed his chair back. He did not seem at all pleased at having met her.
He had been on familiar terms with her during his earlier days at the Beauchene works. She was a frantic pleasure-lover, and destitute of both conscience and moral principles. Her conduct had given rise to scandal even before her extraordinary elopement with Baron de Lowicz, that needy adventurer with a face like an archangel's and the soul of a swindler. The result of the union was a stillborn child. Then Seraphine, who was extremely egotistical and avaricious, quarrelled with her husband and drove him away. He repaired to Berlin, and was killed there in a brawl at a gambling den. Delighted at being rid of him, Seraphine made every use of her liberty as a young widow. She figured at every fete, took part in every kind of amusement, and many scandalous stories were told of her; but she contrived to keep up appearances and was thus still received everywhere.
"You are living in the country, are you not?" she asked again, turning towards Mathieu.
"Yes, we have been there for three weeks past."
"Constance told me of it. I met her the other day at Madame Seguin's. We are on the best terms possible, you know, now that I give my brother good advice."
In point of fact her sister-in-law, Constance, hated her, but with her usual boldness she treated the matter as a joke.
"We talked about Dr. Gaude," she resumed; "I fancied that she wanted to ask for his address; but she did not dare."
"Dr. Gaude!" interrupted Morange. "Ah! yes, a friend of my wife's spoke to her about him. He's a wonderfully clever man, it appears. Some of his operations are like miracles."
Then he went on talking of Dr. Gaude's clinic at the Hopital Marbeuf, a clinic whither society folks hastened to see operations performed, just as they might go to a theatre. The doctor, who was fond of money, and who bled his wealthy lady patients in more senses than one, was likewise partial to glory and proud of accomplishing the most dangerous experiments on the unhappy creatures who fell into his hands. The newspapers were always talking about him, his cures were constantly puffed and advertised by way of inducing fine ladies to trust themselves to his skill. And he certainly accomplished wonders, cutting and carving his patients in the quietest, most unconcerned way possible, with never a scruple, never a doubt as to whether what he did was strictly right or not.
Seraphine had begun to laugh, showing her white wolfish teeth between her blood-red lips, when she noticed the horrified expression which had appeared on Mathieu's face since Gaude had been spoken of. "Ah!" said she; "there's a man, now, who in nowise resembles your squeamish Dr. Boutan, who is always prattling about the birth-rate. I can't understand why Constance keeps to that old-fashioned booby, holding the views she does. She is quite right, you know, in her opinions. I fully share them."
Morange laughed complaisantly. He wished to show her that his opinions were the same. However, as Valerie did not return with Reine, he grew impatient, and asked permission to go and see what they were about. Perhaps he himself might be able to help in getting the child ready.
As soon as Seraphine was alone with Mathieu she turned her big, ardent, gold-flecked eyes upon him. She no longer laughed with the same laugh as a moment previously; an expression of voluptuous irony appeared on her bold bad face. After a spell of silence she inquired, "And is my good cousin Marianne quite well?"
"Quite well," replied Mathieu.
"And the children are still growing?"
"Yes, still growing."
"So you are happy, like a good paterfamilias, in your little nook?"
Again she lapsed into silence, but she did not cease to look at him, more provoking, more radiant than ever, with the charm of a young sorceress whose eyes burn and poison men's hearts. And at last she slowly resumed: "And so it is all over between us?"
He made a gesture in token of assent. There had long since been a passing fancy between them. He had been nineteen at the time, and she two-and-twenty. He had then but just entered life, and she was already married. But a few months later he had fallen in love with Marianne, and had then entirely freed himself from her.
"All over—really?" she again inquired, smiling but aggressive.
She was looking very beautiful and bold, seeking to tempt him and carry him off from that silly little cousin of hers, whose tears would simply have made her laugh. And as Mathieu did not this time give her any answer, even by a wave of the hand, she went on: "I prefer that: don't reply: don't say that it is all over. You might make a mistake, you know."
For a moment Mathieu's eyes flashed, then he closed them in order that he might no longer see Seraphine, who was leaning towards him. It seemed as if all the past were coming back. She almost pressed her lips to his as she whispered that she still loved him; and when he drew back, full of mingled emotion and annoyance, she raised her little hand to his mouth as if she feared that he was again going to say no.
"Be quiet," said she; "they are coming."
The Moranges were now indeed returning with Reine, whose hair had been curled. The child looked quite delicious in her frock of rose silk decked with white lace, and her large hat trimmed with some of the dress material. Her gay round face showed with flowery delicacy under the rose silk.
"Oh, what a love!" exclaimed Seraphine by way of pleasing the parents. "Somebody will be stealing her from me, you know."
Then it occurred to her to kiss the child in passionate fashion, feigning the emotion of a woman who regrets that she is childless. "Yes; indeed one regrets it very much when one sees such a treasure as this sweet girl of yours. Ah! if one could only be sure that God would give one such a charming child—well, at all events, I shall steal her from you; you need not expect me to bring her back again."
The enraptured Moranges laughed delightedly. And Mathieu, who knew her well, listened in stupefaction. How many times during their short and passionate attachment had she not inveighed against children! In her estimation maternity poisoned love, aged woman, and made a horror of her in the eyes of man.
The Moranges accompanied her and Reine to the landing. And they could not find words warm enough to express their happiness at seeing such coveted wealth and luxury come to seek their daughter. When the door of the flat was closed Valerie darted on to the balcony, exclaiming, "Let us see them drive off."
Morange, who no longer gave a thought to the office, took up a position near her, and called Mathieu and compelled him likewise to lean over and look down. A well-appointed victoria was waiting below with a superb-looking coachman motionless on the box-seat. This sight put a finishing touch to the excitement of the Moranges. When Seraphine had installed the little girl beside her, they laughed aloud.
"How pretty she looks! How happy she must feel!"
Reine must have been conscious that they were looking at her, for she raised her head, smiled and bowed. And Seraphine did the same, while the horse broke into a trot and turned the corner of the avenue. Then came a final explosion—
"Look at her!" repeated Valerie; "she is so candid! At twelve years old she is still as innocent as a child in her cradle. You know that I trust her to nobody. Wouldn't one think her a little duchess who has always had a carriage of her own?"
Then Morange reverted to his dream of fortune. "Well," said he, "I hope that she will have a carriage when we marry her off. Just let me get into the Credit National and you will see all your desires fulfilled."
And turning towards Mathieu he added, "There are three of us, and, as I have said before, that is quite enough for a man to provide for, especially as money is so hard to earn."
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."