THIS EDITION DEDICATED TO THE HONOR OF THE ACADEMIE FRANCAISE IS LIMITED TO ONE THOUSAND NUMBERED AND REGISTERED SETS, OF WHICH THIS IS
THE ROMANCISTS JULES CLARETIE HIS EXCELLENCY THE MINISTER
BIBLIOTHEQUE DES CHEFS-D'OEUVRE DU ROMAN CONTEMPORAIN
HIS EXCELLENCY THE MINISTER
OF THE ACADEMIE FRANCAISE
PRINTED FOR SUBSCRIBERS ONLY BY
GEORGE BARRIE & SONS, PHILADELPHIA COPYRIGHT, 1900, BY G.B. & SON
THIS EDITION OF HIS EXCELLENCY THE MINISTER HAS BEEN COMPLETELY TRANSLATED BY HENRI ROBERTS
THE ETCHINGS ARE BY EUGENE WALLET AND DRAWINGS BY ADRIEN MARIE
TO ALPHONSE DAUDET
My dear friend,
Ideas sometimes float about in the air like the pollen of flowers. For years past I have been at work collecting notes for this book which I have decided to dedicate to you.
In one of your charming prefaces, you told us lately that you only painted from nature. We are both of us, I imagine, in our day and generation, quite captivated and carried away by that modern society from which in your exquisite creations you have so well understood how to extract the essence.
What is it that I have desired to do this time? That which we have both been trying to do at one and the same time: to seize, in passing, these stirring times of ours, these modern manners, that society which perpetuates the antediluvian uproar, that feverish, bustling world always posing before the footlights, that market for the sale of appetites, that kirmess of pleasure that saddens us a little and amuses us a great deal, and allows us romance-writers, simple seekers after truth, to smile in our sleeves at the constant seekers after portfolios.
This book is true, I have seen the events narrated in it pass before my own eyes, and I can say, as a spectator greatly interested in what I see, that I am delighted, my old fellow-traveller, to write your great and honored name on the first page of my book as a witness to the sincere affection and true comradeship of
There was once a Minister of State who presented to his native land the astonishing spectacle of a Cabinet Minister dying whilst in office. This action was so astounding to the nation at large that a statue has since been erected to his memory.
I saw his funeral procession defile past me, I think I even made one of the Committee sent by the Society of Men of Letters to march in the funeral convoy. It was superb. This lawyer from the Provinces, good honest man, eloquent orator, honest politician that he was, who came to Paris but to die there, was buried with the greatest magnificence.
De Musset had eight persons to follow him to the grave; his Excellency had one hundred thousand.
I returned home from this gorgeous funeral in a thoughtful mood, thinking how much emptiness there is in glory, and particularly in political glory. This man had been "His Excellency the Minister" and not only his own province, but the whole country had placed its hopes on him. But what had he done? He had left his home to cast himself into the great whirlpool of the metropolis. It was the romance of a great provincial plunged in Paris into the reality of contemporary history, and become as ordinary as the commonplace items of the Journals. "What a subject for a study at once profoundly modern and perfectly lifelike!" The funeral convoy had hardly left the church of the Madeleine when my plot of this romance was thought out, and appeared clearly before me in this title, very brief and simple: His Excellency the Minister.
I have not drawn any one in particular, I have thought of no individual person, I even forgot all about this departed Minister, whose face I hardly caught even a glimpse of, and of whose life I was completely ignorant; I had only in my mind's eye a hero or rather a heroine: Politics with all its discouragements, its vexations, its treacheries, its deceptions, its visions as fair as the blue sky of summer, suddenly bursting like soap bubbles; and to the woes of Politics, I naturally endeavored to add those of the pangs of love.
And this is how my book came to see the light. I have been frequently asked from what living person I borrowed the character of Vaudrey, with its sufferings, its disappointments, its falterings. From whom? An American translator, better informed, it appears, than myself, has, I believe, brought out in New York a key to the characters presented in my book. I should have publicly protested against this Key which unlocks nothing, however, had it been published in France. Reader, do not expect any masks to be raised here—there are no masks; it is only a picture of living people, of passions of our time. No portraits, however, only types. That, at least, is what I have tried to do. And if I expected to find indulgent critics, I have certainly succeeded, and the two special characters which I sought to portray in my romance—in Parisian and political life—have been fortunate enough to win the approval of two critics whose testimony to the truth of my portraitures I have set down here.
An author of rare merit and an authority on Statecraft, Monsieur J.-J. Weiss, was kind enough one day to analyze and praise, apropos of the comedy founded upon my book, the romance which I am to-day republishing. It has been extremely pleasant for me to put myself under the sponsorship of a man of letters willing to vouch for the truth of my portrayals. I must beg pardon for repeating his commendations of my work, so grateful are they to me, coming from the pen of a critic so renowned, and which I take some pride in reading again.
"I had already twice read Monsieur le Ministre," wrote Monsieur J.-J. Weiss in the Journal des Debats the day following the production at the Gymnase, "before having seen the drama founded on the book, and I do not regret having been obliged to read it for the third time. The romance is both well conceived and admirably executed. To have written it, a union of character and talent was necessary. A Republican tried and proved, permitting his ideal to be tarnished and sullied; a patriot wronged by the vices of the times in which he lived; an honest, clean-handed man; the representative of a family of rigid morality; the strict impartiality of the artist who cares for nothing but his ideas of art, and who protects those ideas from being injured or influenced by the pretensions of any group or coterie; a close and long acquaintanceship with the ins and outs of Parisian life; an eye at once inquiring, calm and critical, a courageous indifference, hatred for the mighty ones of the hour, and a loftiness of soul which refuses to yield to the unjust demands of timid friendship: such are the qualities that make the value of this matchless book. Monsieur Claretie has been accused of having gathered together and exposed to the public gaze two or three more or less scandalous episodes of private life, and using them as the foundation of his romance. The fictitious name of Vaudrey has been held to cloak that of such and such a Minister of State. Those, however, who search for vulgar gossip in this book, or who look for private scandal are far astray. They are quite mistaken as regards the tendency and moral of Monsieur Claretie's book. The Vaudrey of the romance is no minister in particular, neither this statesman nor that. He is the Minister whom we have had before our eyes for the last quarter of a century. He is that one, at once potential and universal. In him are united and portrayed all the traits by which the species may be determined. He had been elected to office without knowing why, and to do him this justice, at least without any fault of his; he was deposed from power without knowing the reason, and we have no hesitation in saying, without his having done anything either good or bad to deserve his fall. There he is minister, however; Minister of the Interior, and who knows? in a fair way, perhaps, to be swept by some favorable wind to the post of President of the Council; while not so very long ago to have been made sub-prefect of the first class, would have surpassed the wildest visions of his youth. In Monsieur Claretie's romance it is the old Member of Parliament, Collard—of Nantes—converted late in life to Republicanism, who chose the provincial Vaudrey for his Minister of the Interior; this may, with equal probability be Marshal MacMahon.
"In Monsieur Claretie's romance, Monsieur le Ministre is of the Left Centre or the so-called Moderate Party, he is therefore on the side of Law and Order. He enters into the Cabinet with the determination to reform every abuse, to recast everything; to seek for honest men, to make merit and not faction, the touchstone of advancement. In short, to apply in his political life the glorious principles which—and the noble maxims that—He is only, however, forty-eight hours in office when he becomes quite demoralized, paralyzed and stultified for the rest of his ministerial life. It is the phenomenon of crushing demoralization and of complete enervation of which the public, from the situation in which it is placed, sees only the results of which Monsieur Claretie, with a skilful hand describes for us the mechanism and the cause. This Minister of State, supposed to be omnipotent in office, has not even the power to choose an undersecretary of State for himself. The Minister who only the day before, from his seat upon one of the benches of the Opposition, sat with his head held aloft, his long body erect, with rigid dignity, as if made of triple brass, cannot now take the initiative in the appointment of a 'garde champetre.' His undersecretaries of State, his gardes champetres, he himself, his whole environment, in fact, are only painted dummies and the meek puppets that a director of the staff, a chief of a division, or a chief of a bureau sets in motion, to the tune he grinds out of his hand-organ, or moves them about at his will like pawns upon a chess-board. The Minister will read with smiling confidence the reports by which his subordinates who are his masters, inform him—what no one until then had thought of—that he has been called by the voice of the nation to his high office, and that he can in future count upon the entire and complete confidence of the country. To please these obliging persons, the hangers-on of governments that he has passed a quarter of his life infighting against and whom he will call gravely, and upon certain occasions, very drolly, the hierarchy, he will betray without any scruples all those whose disinterested efforts and great sacrifices have brought about the triumph of the cause which he represents.
"Monsieur le Ministre is from the Provinces! You understand. Solemn and pedantic, if his youth has been passed upon the banks of the Isere, a puppy with his muzzle held aloft and giddy, if Garonne has nourished him, broad faced and vulgarly pedantic if his cradle has been rocked in upper Limousin. But whether he comes from Correze, from Garonne or Isere, it is always as a Provincial that he arrives in Paris, the air of which intoxicates him. He is in the same situation and carries with him the same sentiments as Monsieur Jourdain when invited to visit the Countess Dorimene. For the first adventuress who comes along, a born princess who has strayed into a house of ill fame, or one who frequents such a house, who masquerades as a princess in her coquettish house in Rue Bremontier, he will forsake father, mother, children, state documents, cabinet, councils, Chamber of Deputies, everything in fact. He will break away from his young wife who has grown up under his eyes in the same town with him, among all the sweet domestic graces, moulded amid all the fresh and sapid delicacies of the provinces, but pshaw! too provincial for a noble of his importance, and he will go in pursuit of some flower, no matter what, be it only redolent of Parisian patchouli. He will break the heart of the one, while for the other, he will bring before the councils of administration suspected schemes, blackmailings, concessions, treachery and ruin. Monsieur Claretie had shown us the Vaudrey of his romance involved in all these degradations, although he has checked him as to some, and in his novel, at least, with due submission to the exalted truth of art, he has not shrunk from punishing this false, great man and pretended tribune of the people, by the very vices he espoused.
"I do not stop to inquire if even in the story, Monsieur Claretie's 'Marianne Kayser' is frequently self-contradictory, and if in some features I clearly recognize his Guy de Lissac; two characters that play an important part in the narrative! But after all, what does it matter? It suffices for me that his Excellency the Minister and all his Excellency's entourage are fully grasped and clearly described. Granet, the low intriguer of the lobbies; Molina, the stock-company cut-throat and Bourse ruffian; Ramel, the melancholy and redoubtable publicist, who has made emperors without himself desiring to become one, who will die in the neighborhood of Montmartre and the Batignolles, forgotten but proud, poor, and unsullied by money, true to his ideals, among the ingrates enriched by his journal and who have reached the summit only by the influence of his authority with the public; Denis Garnier, the Parisian workman who has had an experience of the hulks as the result of imbibing too freely of sentimental prose and of lending too ready an ear to the golden speech of some tavern demagogue, who has now had enough of politics and who scarcely troubles to think what former retailer of treasonable language, what Gracchus of the sidewalk may be minister, Vaudrey or Pichereau, or even Granet: all these types are separately analyzed and vigorously generalized. Monsieur Claretie designated no one in particular but we elbow the characters in his book every day of our lives. He has, moreover, written a book of a robust and healthy novelty. The picture of the greenroom of the Ballet with which the tale opens and where we are introduced in the most natural way possible to nearly all the characters that play a part in the story of Vaudrey is masterly in execution and intention. It is Balzac, but Balzac toned down and more limpid."
I will stop here at the greenroom of the Ballet commended by Monsieur J.-J. Weiss, to give a slight sketch, clever as a drawing by Saint' Aubin or a lithograph by Gavarni, which Monsieur Ludovic Halevy has contributed to a journal and in which he also praises the romance that the feuilletoniste of the Debats has criticized with an authority so discriminating and a benevolence so profound.
It was very agreeable for me to observe that such a thorough Parisian as the shrewd and witty author of Les Petites Cardinal should find that the Opera—which certainly plays a role in our politics—had been sufficiently well portrayed by the author of Monsieur le Ministre. And upon this, the first chapter of my book, Monsieur Ludovic Halevy adds, moreover, some special and piquant details which are well worth quoting:
"That which gave me very great pleasure in this tale of a man of politics is that politics really have little, very little place in the novel; it is love that dominates it and in the most despotic and pleasant way possible. This great man of Grenoble who arrives at Paris in order to reform everything, repair everything, elevate everything, falls at once under the sway of a most charming Parisian adventuress. See Sulpice Vaudrey the slave of Marianne. Marianne's gray eyes never leave him—But she in her turn meets her master—and Marianne's master is Adolphe Gochard, a horrid Parisian blackguard—who is so much her master that, after all, the real hero of the romance is Adolphe Gochard. Such is the secret philosophy of this brilliant and ingenious romance.
"I have, however, a little quarrel on my own account with Monsieur Jules Claretie. Nothing can be more brilliantly original than the introductory chapter of Monsieur le Ministre. Sulpice Vaudrey makes his first appearance behind the scenes of the Opera, and from the sides of the stage, in the stage boxes, opera-glasses are turned upon him, and he hears whispered:
"'It is the new Minister of the Interior.'
"'Nonsense! Monsieur Vaudrey?'
"'Yes, Monsieur Vaudrey—'
"In short, the appearance of his Excellency creates a sensation, and it is against this statement that I protest. I go frequently to the Opera, very frequently. During the last ten years I have seen defile before me in the wings, at least fifty Ministers of State, all just freshly ground out. Curiosity had brought them there and the desire to see the dancers at close quarters, and also the vague hope that by exhibiting themselves there in all their glory, they would create a sensation in this little world.
"Well, this hope of theirs was never realized. Nobody took the trouble to look at them. A minister nowadays is nobody of importance. Formerly to rise to such a position, to take in hand the reins of one of the great departments, it was necessary to have a certain exterior, a certain prominence, something of a past—to be a Monsieur Thiers, Monsieur Guizot, Monsieur Mole, Monsieur de Remusat, Monsieur Villemain, Monsieur Duchatel, Monsieur de Falloux or Monsieur de Broglie—that is to say, an orator, an author, a historian, somebody in fact. But nowadays, all that is necessary to be a minister is the votes of certain little combinations of groups and subsidiary groups, who all expect a share of the spoils. Therefore we are ruled by certain personages illustrious perhaps at Gap or at Montelimar but who are quite unknown in the genealogical records of the Boulevard Haussmann. Why should you imagine that public attention would be attracted by news like this:
"'Look!—There is Monsieur X, or Monsieur Y, or Monsieur Z.'
"One person only during these last years ever succeeded in attracting the attention of the songstresses and ballet-girls of the Opera. And that was Gambetta. Ah! when he came to claim Monsieur Vaucorbeil's hospitality, it was useless to crouch behind the cherry-colored silk curtains of the manager's box, many glances were directed toward him, and many prowling curiosities were awakened in the vicinity of the manager's box. Little lassies of ten or twelve came and seized your hand, saying:
"'Please, monsieur, point out Monsieur Gambetta to me—he is here—I would so much like to see him.'
"And then Gambetta was pointed out to them during the entr'acte—after which, delighted, they went off caracoling and pirouetting behind the scenes:
"'You did not see Monsieur Gambetta, but I saw him!'
"This was popularity—and it must be confessed that only one man in France to-day receives such marks of it. This man is Gambetta.
"Meanwhile Claretie's minister continues his walk through the corridors of the Opera house. He reaches the greenroom of the ballet at last and exclaims:
"'And that is all!'
"Alas, yes, your Excellency, that is all!—"
And everything is only a "that is all," in this world. If one should set himself carefully to weigh power or fame,—power, that force of which Girardin said, however: "I would give fifty years of glory for one hour of power,"—even if one tilted the scale, one would not find the weight very considerable.
It would be necessary to have the resounding renown of a personality like that one who, if I am to believe Monsieur Halevy, alone enjoyed the privilege of revolutionizing the foyer of the ballet, in order to boast of having been someone, or of having accomplished something.
A rather witty skeptic once said to a friend of his who had just been appointed minister:
"My dear fellow, permit me as a practical man to ask you not to engage in too many affairs. Events in this world are accomplished without much meddling. If you attempt to do something to-day, everyone will cry out: 'What! he is going to demolish everything!' If you do nothing, they will cry: 'What! he does not budge! If I were minister, which God forbid, I would say nothing—and let others act—I would do nothing—and let others talk.'"
Everybody, very fortunately—and all ministers do not reason like this jester. But the truth is that it is very difficult for an honest man in the midst of political entanglements as Vaudrey was, to realize his dream. When opportunities arise—those opportunities that march only at a snail's pace—one is not allowed to make use of them, they are snatched from one. They arrive, only to take wings again. And in those posts of daily combat, one has not only against one the enemies who attack one openly, which would be but a slight matter, a touch with a goad or a prick of the spur, at most—but one has to contend with friends who compromise, and servants who serve one badly.
Every man who occupies an office, whatever it may be, has for his adversaries those who covet it, those who regret it, those who have once filled it, and those who desire to fill it. What assaults too! Against a successful rival, there is no infamy too base, no mine too deep, no villainy too cruel, no lie too poisoned to be made use of—and the minister, his Excellency, is like a hostage to Power.
And yet one more point, it is not in his enemies or his calumniators that his danger lies. The real, absolute evil is in the system of routine and ill-will which attack the statesmen of probity. It will be seen from these pages that there is a warning bell destined, alas! to keep away from those in power the messengers who would bring them the truth from outside, the unwelcome and much dreaded truth.
The novel may sometimes be this stroke of the bell,—a stroke honest and useful,—a disinterested warner, and I have striven to make Monsieur le Ministre precisely that, in a small degree, for the political world. I have essayed to paint this hell paved with some of the good intentions. The success which greeted the appearance of this book, might justify me in believing that I have succeeded in my task. I trust that it will enjoy under its new form—so flattering to an author, that an editor-artist is pleased to give it,—the success achieved under its first form.
_Monsieur le Ministre_ is connected with more than one recollection of my life. I was called upon one day to follow to his last resting-place—and it is on an occasion like this that one discovers more readily and perceives more clearly life's ironies—one of those men "who do nothing but create other men," a journalist. It was bitterly cold and we stood before the open grave, just in front of a railway embankment, in an out of the way cemetery of Saint-Ouen,—the cemetery called _Cayenne,_ because the dead are "deported" thither. We were but four faithful ones. Yes, four, but amongst these four must be included a young man, bare-headed and wearing the uniform of an officer, who stood by the deceased man's son._
Whilst one of us bade the last farewell to the departed on the brink of the grave, the scream of the railway engine cut short his words, and seemed to hiss for the last time the fate of the vanquished man lying there. As we were quitting the cemetery, a worthy man, a song-writer, observed to me: "Well, if all those whom Leon Plee helped during his lifetime had remembered him when he was dead, this little Campo Santo of Saint-Ouen would not have been large enough to hold them all!"
Doubtless. But they did not remember him.
And from the contrast between the shabby obsequies of the old journalist and the solemn pomp of that of the funeral service of the four days' minister came the idea of my book. It seemed to me that here was an appropriate idea and a useful reparation. Art has nothing to lose—rather the contrary, when it devotes itself to militant tasks.
Ah! I forgot—When one mentions to-day the name of this illustrious minister whose funeral convoy was in its day one of the great spectacles of Paris, and one of the great surprises to those who know how difficult it is for a minister to die in office—like the Spartan still grasping his shield—those best informed, shaking their heads solemnly will say:
"Ricard?—Oh! he had great talent, Ricard—I saw lately a portrait of Paul de Musset by him—It is superb!"
They confound him with the painter to whom no statue has been erected, but whose works remain.
Be, then, a Cabinet Minister!
Viroflay, September 1, 1886.
HIS EXCELLENCY THE MINISTER
The third act of L'Africaine had just come to a close.
The minister, on leaving the manager's box, said smilingly, like a man glad to be rid of the cares of State: "Let us go to the greenroom, Granet, shall we?"
"Let us go to the greenroom, as your Excellency proposes!"
They were obliged to cross the immense stage where the stage carpenters were busy with the stage accessories as sailors with the equipment of a vessel; and men in evening dress, with white ties, looked natty without their greatcoats, and with opera hats on their heads were going to and fro, picking their way amongst the ropes and other impedimenta which littered the stage, on their way to the greenroom of the ballet.
They had come here from all parts of the house, from the stalls and boxes; most of them humming as they went the air from Nelusko's ballad, walking lightly as habitues through the species of antechamber which separates the body of the house from the stage.
A servant wearing a white cravat, was seated at a table writing down upon a sheet of paper the names of those who came in. One side of this sheet bore a headline reading: Messieurs, and the other Medecin, in two columns. From time to time this man would get up from his chair to bow respectfully to some official personage whom he recognized.
"Have you seen Monsieur Vaudrey come in yet, Louis?" asked a still young man with a monocle in his eye, who seemed quite at home behind the scenes.
"His Excellency is in the manager's box, monsieur!" answered the servant civilly.
"Thank you, Louis!"
And as the visitor turned to go up the narrow stairway leading to the greenroom, the servant wrote down in the running-hand of a clerk, upon the printed sheet: Monsieur Guy de Lissac.
Upon the stage, Vaudrey, the Minister whom Lissac had been inquiring for, stood arm in arm with his companion Granet, looking in astonishment at the vast machinery of the opera, operated by this army of workmen, whom he did not know. He was quite astonished at the sight, as he had never beheld its like. His astonishment was so evident and artless that Granet, his friend and colleague in the Chamber of Deputies, could not help smiling at it from under his carefully waxed moustaches.
"I consider all this much more wonderful than the opera itself," observed his Excellency. The floor and wings were like great yellow spots, and the whole immense stage resembled a great, sandy desert. Vaudrey raised his head to gaze at the symmetrical arrangement of the chandeliers, as bright as rows of gas-jets, amongst the hangings of the friezes. A huge canvas at the back represented a sunlit Indian landscape, and in the enormous space between the lowered curtain and the scenery, some black spots seemed as if dancing, strange silhouettes of the visitors in their dress clothes, standing out clearly against the yellow background like the shadows of Chinese figures.
"It is very amusing; but let us see the greenroom," said the minister. "You are familiar with the greenroom, Granet?"
"I am a Parisian," returned the deputy, without too great an emphasis; but the ironical smile which accompanied his words made Vaudrey understand that his colleague looked upon his Excellency as fresh from the province and still smacking of its manners.
Sulpice hesitatingly crossed the stage in the midst of a hubbub like that of a man-of-war getting ready for action, caused by the methodical destruction and removal of the scenery comprising the huge ship used in L'Africaine by a swarm of workmen in blue vests, yelling and shoving quickly before them, or carrying away sections of masts and parts of ladders, hurrying out of sight by way of trap-doors and man-holes, this carcass of a work of art; this spectacle of a great swarm of human ants, running hither and thither, pulling and tugging at this immense piece of stage decoration, in the vast frame capable of holding at one and the same time, a cathedral and a factory, was rather awe-inspiring to the statesman, who stopped short to look at it, while the tails of his coat brushed against the fallen curtain.
From both sides of the stage, from the stage-boxes, opera-glasses were turned upon him here and there and a murmur like a breeze came wafted towards him.
"It is the new Minister of the Interior!"
"Nonsense! Monsieur Vaudrey?"
Vaudrey proudly drew himself up under the battery of opera-glasses levelled at him, while Granet, smiling, said to the master of the chorus who, dressed in a black coat, stood near him:
"It can be easily seen that this is his first visit here!"
Oh! yes, truly, it was the first time that the new minister had set his foot in the wings of the Opera! He relished it with all the curiosity of a youth and the gusto of a collegian. How fortunate that he had not brought Madame Vaudrey, who was slightly indisposed. This rapid survey of a world unknown to him, had the flavor of an escapade. There was a little spice in this amusing adventure.
Behind the canvas in the rear, some musicians, costumed as Brahmins, with spectacles on their noses, the better to decipher their score, fingered their brass instruments with a weary air, rocking them like infants in swaddling clothes. Actors in the garb of Indians, with painted cheeks, and legs encased in chocolate-colored bandages, were yawning, weary and flabby, and stretching themselves while awaiting the time for them to present themselves upon the stage. Others, dressed like soldiers, were sleeping on the wooden benches against the walls, their mouths open, their helmets drawn down over their noses like visors. Others, their pikes serving them for canes, had taken off their headgear and placed it at their feet, the better to rest their heads against the wall, where they leaned with their eyes shut.
Little girls, all of them thin, and in short skirts, were already pirouetting, and humming airs. Older girls stood about with their legs crossed, or, half-stooping, displayed their bosoms while retying the laces of their pink shoes. Others, wearing a kind of Siamese headdress with ornaments of gold, were laughing and clashing together their little silver cymbals. Awkward fellows with false beards, dressed like high priests in robes of yellow, striped with red, elbowed past and jostled against the girls quite unceremoniously. An usher, dressed a la Francaise, and wearing a chain around his neck, paced, grave and melancholy, amongst these shameless young girls.
The greenroom at the end of the stage was entered through a large vestibule hung with curtains of grayish velvet shot with violet, and at the top of the steps where some men in dress-clothes were talking to ballet-girls, Vaudrey could see in the great salon beyond, blazing with light, groups of half-nude women surrounded by men, resembling, in their black clothes, beetles crawling about roses, the whole company reflected in a flood of light, in an immense mirror that covered one end of the room. Little by little, Vaudrey could make out above the paintings representing ancient dances, and the portraits by Camargo or Noverre, a confusion of gaudy skirts, pink legs, white shoulders, with the ubiquitous black coats sprinkled about here and there amongst these bright colors like large blots of ink upon ball-dresses.
Sulpice had often heard the greenroom of the ballet spoken about, and he was at once completely disillusioned. The glaring, brutal light ruthlessly exposed the worn and faded hangings; and the pretty girls in their full, short, gauzy petticoats, with their bare arms, smiling and twisting about, their satin-shod feet resting upon gray velvet footstools, seemed to him, as they occupied the slanting floor, to move in a cloud of dust, and to be robbed of all naturalness and freshness.
"And is this all?" the minister exclaimed almost involuntarily.
"What!" answered Granet, "you seem hard to please!"
Amongst all these girls, there had been manifested an expression of mingled curiosity, coquetry and banter on Vaudrey's appearance in their midst. His presence in the manager's box had been noticed and his coming to the greenroom expected. Every one had hurried thither. Sulpice was pointed out. He was the cynosure of all eyes. On the divans beneath the mirror, some young, well-dressed, bald men, surrounded—perhaps by chance—by laughing ballet-girls, now half-concealed themselves behind the voluminous skirts of the girls about them, and bent their heads, thus rendering their baldness more visible, just as a woman buries her nose in her bouquet to avoid recognizing an acquaintance.
Vaudrey, observing this ruse, smiled a slight, sarcastic smile. He recognized behind the shielding petticoats, some of his prefects, those from the environs of Paris, come from Versailles and Chartres, or from some sub-prefectures, and gallantly administering the affairs of France from the heart of the greenroom. Amiable functionaries of the Ministry of Fine Arts also came here to study aestheticism between the acts.
All members of the different regimes seemed to be fraternizing in ironical promiscuousness here, and Vaudrey in a whisper drew Granet's attention to this. Old beaux of the time of the Empire, with dyed and waxed moustaches, with dyed or grizzled hair flattened on their temples, their flabby cheeks cut across by stiff collars as jelly is cut by a knife, were hobnobbing, fat and lean, with young fops of the Republic, who with their sharp eyes, wide-open nostrils, their cheeks covered with brown or flaxen down, their hair carefully brushed, or already bald, seemed quite surprised to find themselves in such a place, and chattered and cackled among themselves like beardless conscripts, perverted and immoral but with some scruples still remaining and less cunning than these well-dressed old roues standing firmly at their posts like veterans.
"The licentiates and the pensioners," whispered Vaudrey.
"You have a quickness of sight quite Parisian, your Excellency," returned Granet.
"There are Parisians in the Provinces, my dear Granet," replied Sulpice with a heightened complexion, his blood flowing more rapidly than usual, due to emotions at once novel and gay.
"Ah! your Excellency," exclaimed a fat, animated man with hair and whiskers of quite snowy whiteness, and smiling as he spoke, "what in the world brought you here?"
He approached Vaudrey, bowing but not at all obsequiously, with the air of good humor due to a combination of wealth and embonpoint. Fat and rich, in perfect health, and carrying his sixty years with the lightness of forty, Molina—Molina the "Tumbler" as he was nicknamed—spent his afternoons on the Bourse and his evenings in the greenroom of the ballet.
He had a small interest in the theatre, but a large one in the coryphees, in a paternal way, his white hair giving him the right to be respected and his crowns the right to respect nothing. Beginning life very low down, and now enjoying a lofty position, the fat Molina haunted the Bourse and the greenroom of the Opera. He glutted himself with all the earliest delicacies of the season, like a man who when young, has not always had enough to satisfy hunger.
Pictures that were famous, women of fashion, statues of marble and fair flesh, he must have them all. He collected, without any taste whatever, costly paintings, rare objects; he bought without love, girls who were not wholly mercenary. At a pinch he found them, taking pleasure in parading in his coupe, around the lake or at the races, some recruit in vice, and in watching the crowd that at once eagerly surrounded her, simply because she had been the mistress of the fat Molina. He had in his youth at Marseilles, in the Jewish quarter of the town, sold old clothes to the Piedmontese and sailors in port. Now it was his delight to behold the Parisians of the Boulevard or the clubs buy as sentimental rags the cast-off garments of his passion.
"You in the greenroom of the ballet, your Excellency?" continued the financier. "Ah! upon my word, I shall tell Madame Vaudrey."
Sulpice smiled, the mere name of his wife sounded strange to his ears in a place like this. It seemed to him that in speaking of her, she was being dragged into a strange circle, and one which did not belong to her. He had felt the same only a few days before upon his entrance into the cabinet, on seeing a report of his marriage, his dwelling minutely described, and a pen portrait of that Adrienne, who was the passion of his life.
"After all," continued Molina, "Madame Vaudrey must get used to it. The Opera! Why, it is a part of politics! The key of many a situation is to be found in the greenroom!"
The financier laughed merrily, a laugh that had the ring of the Turcarets' jingling crowns.
He went on to explain to his Excellency all the little mysteries of the greenroom, as a man quite at home in this little Parisian province, and lightly, by a word, a gesture even, he gave the minister a rapid biography of the young girls who were laughing, jesting, romping there before them; flitting hither and thither lightly across the boards, barely touching them with the tips of their pink satin-shod feet.
Sulpice was surprised at everything he saw. He did not even take the pains to conceal his surprise. Evidently it was his first visit behind the scenes.
"Ah! your Excellency," said Molina, delighted with his role of cicerone, "it is necessary to be at home here! You should come here often! Nothing in the world can be more amusing. Here behind the scenes is a world by itself. One can see pretty little lasses springing up like asparagus. One sees running hither and thither a tall, thin child who nods to you saucily and crunches nuts like a squirrel. One takes a three months' journey, and passes a season at Vichy or at Dieppe, and when one returns, presto! see the transformation. The butterfly has burst forth from its cocoon. No longer a little girl, but a woman. Those saucy eyes of old now look at you with an expression which disturbs your heart. One might have offered, six months before, two sous' worth of chestnuts to the child; now, however, nothing less than a coupe will satisfy the woman. It used to jump on your knee at that time, now every one is throwing his arms around its pretty neck. Thus from generation to generation, one assists at the mobilization of a whole army of recruits, who first try their weapons here, pass from here into the regiment of veterans, build themselves a hospital in cut-stone out of their savings, and some of them mount very high through the tips of their toes if they are not suddenly attacked by the malady of the knee."
"Malady of the knee?" inquired Vaudrey.
"A phrase not to be found in the Dictionary of Political Economy by Maurice Block. It is a way of saying that ill-luck has overtaken one. A very interesting condition, this malady of the knee! It often not only shortens the leg but the career!"
"Is this malady a frequent one at the Opera?"
"Ah! your Excellency, how can it be helped? There are so many slips in this pirouetting business! It is as risky as politics!"
Fat Molina shouted with laughter at this clumsy jest, and placing a binocle upon his huge nose, which was cleft down the middle like that of a hunting-hound, he exclaimed suddenly, turning towards the door as he spoke:
"Eh! Marie Launay? What is she holding in her hand?"
Light, nimble and graceful in her costume of a Hindoo dancing girl, a young girl of sixteen or seventeen summers, already betraying her womanhood in the ardent glances half-hidden in the depths of her large, deep-blue eyes, tripped into the greenroom, humming an air and holding in her hand a long sheet of paper.
She shook, as if embarrassed by it, the broad necklace of large imitation pearls that danced on her fine neck and fell on her undeveloped bosom; and looking in search of some one among the crowd of girls, cried out from a distance to a plump little brunette who was talking and laughing within a circle of dress-coats at the other end of the room:
"Eh! Anna, you have not subscribed yet!"
The brunette, freeing herself unceremoniously enough from her living madrigals, came running lightly up to Marie Launay, who held out towards her an aluminum pencil-case and the sheet of paper.
"What the devil is that?" asked Molina.
"Let us go and see," said Granet.
"Would it not be an indiscretion on our part?" asked Vaudrey, half seriously.
The financier, however, was by this time at the side of the two pretty girls, and asked the blonde what the paper contained, the names on which her companion was spelling out.
Marie Launay, a lovely girl with little ringlets of fair hair curling low down upon her forehead, smiled like a pretty, innocent and still timid child, under the luring glances of the fat man, and glancing with an expression of virgin innocence at Sulpice and Granet, who were standing beside him, replied:
"That—Oh! that is the subscription we are getting up for Mademoiselle Legrand."
"Oh! that is so," said Molina. "You mean to make her a present of a statuette?"
"On her taking her leave of us. Yes, every one has subscribed to it—even the boxholders. Do you see?"
Marie Launay quickly snatched the paper from her friend; on it were several names, some written in ink, others in pencil, the whole presenting the peculiar appearance of schoolboys' pot-hooks or the graceful lines traced by crawling flies, while the fantastic spelling offered a strange medley. Molina burst out laughing, his ever-present laugh that sounded like the shaking of a money-bag,—when he ran his eye over the list and found accompanying the names of ballet-dancers and members of the chorus, the distinguished particles of some habitues.
"Look! your Excellency—It is stupendous! Here: Amelie Dunois, 2 francs. Jeanne Garnot, 5 francs. Bel-Enfant—Charles—, 1 fr., 50 centimes. Warnier I., 2 francs. Warnier II., 2 francs. Gigonnet, 4 francs. Baron Humann, 100 francs. The baron!—the former prefect! Humann writing his name down here with Bel-Enfant and Gigonnet. Humann inscribing above his signature—I vill supscribe von hundertfranc! If one were to see it in a newspaper, one would not believe it! If only a reporter were here now! For a choice Paris echo what a rare one it would be!"
Granet examined little Marie Launay with sly glances, toying with his black moustache the while, and the other young girl Anna, very much confused at the coarse laughter of Molina the "Tumbler," kept turning around in her slender fingers the aluminum pencil-case and looking at Marie as much as to say:
"You know I can never muster up courage to write down my name before all these people!"
"Lend me your pencil, my child," Molina said to her.
She held it out towards him timidly.
"Where the baron has led the way, Molina the Tumbler may certainly follow!" said the financier.
He turned the screw of the pencil-case to extend the lead, and placing one of his huge feet upon a divan to steady himself, wrote rapidly with the paper on his knee, as a man used to scribbling notes at the Bourse:
"Solomon Molina, 500 francs."
"Ah! monsieur," exclaimed Marie Launay upon reading it, "that is handsome, that is! It is kind, very kind! If everybody were as generous as you, we could give a statue of Terpsichore in gold to Mademoiselle Legrand."
"If you should ever want one of Carpeaux's groups for yourself, my child," said Molina, "you may go to the studio in a cab to look at it, and fetch it away with you in—your own coupe."
The girl grew as red as a cherry under her powder, even her graceful, childish shoulders turned pink, enhancing her blonde and childlike beauty.
Vaudrey was conscious of a strange and subtle charm in this intoxicating circle,—a charm full of temptations which made him secretly uneasy. There passed before his eyes visions of other days, he beheld the phantoms of gay dresses, the apparitions of spring landscapes, he felt the breezes of youth, laden with the scents of the upspringing grass, the lilacs at Meudon, the violets of Ville-d'Avray, the souvenirs of the escapades of his student days. Their short, full skirts reminded him of white frocks that whisked gayly around the hazel-trees long ago, those ballet-girls bore a striking resemblance to the pink and white grisettes that he had flirted with when he was twenty.
He extended his hand in turn towards the sheet of paper to which Molina had just signed his name, saying to Marie Launay as he did so:
"Let me have it, if you please, mademoiselle."
Granet began to laugh.
"Ah! ah!" he cried, "you are really going to write down under Monsieur Gigonnet's signature the name of the Minister of the Interior?"
"Oh! bless me!" said Vaudrey, laughing, "that is true! You will believe it or not as you please, but I quite forgot that I was a minister."
"It was the same with me when I was decorated," said Molina. "I would not receive my great-coat from box-openers because I saw the morsel of red ribbon hanging on it, and I was sure the garment was not mine. But one grows used to it after a while! Now," and his laugh with the hundred-sou piece ring grew louder than ever, "I am really quite surprised not to find the rosette of red ribbon sticking to my flannel waistcoats."
Vaudrey left Marie Launay, greatly to her surprise, and listened to Molina's chronicles of the ballet.
Ah! if his Excellency had but the time, he would have seen the funniest things. For instance, there was amongst the dancers a marble cutter, who during the day sold and cut his gravestones and came here at night to grin and caper in the ballet. He was on the scent of every funeral from the Opera; he would get orders for tombstones between two dances at the rehearsals. One day Molina had been present at one of these. It seems incredible, but there was a bank clerk in a gray coat, a three-cornered hat upon his head and a brass buckler on his arm, who sacrificed to Venus in the interval between his two occupations, dancing with the coryphees; a dancer by night and a receiver of money by day. A girl was rehearsing beside him, in black bands and skirt. Then Molina, astonished, inquired who she might be. He was told that it was a girl in mourning, whose mother had just died. The Opera is a fine stage upon which to behold the ironies and contrasts of life.
The financier might have related to Sulpice Vaudrey a description of a journey to Timbuctoo and have found him less amused and less interested than now. It was a world new and strange to him, attractive, and as exciting as acid to this man, still young, whose success had been achieved by unstinted labors, and who knew Paris only by what he had learned of it years ago, when a law student: the pit of the Comedie Francaise, the Luxembourg galleries and those of the Louvre, the Public Libraries, the Hall of Archives, the balls in the Latin Quarter, the holidays and the foyer of the Opera once or twice on the occasion of a masked ball. And, besides that?—Nothing. That was all.
The great man from Grenoble arrived in Paris with his appetite whetted for the life of the city, and now he was here, suddenly plunged into the greenroom of the ballet, and all eyes were turned towards him, almost frightened as he was, on catching a glimpse of his own image reflected in the huge mirror glittering under the numerous lights, in the heart of this strange salon and surrounded by half-clad dancing girls. Then, too, everybody was looking at him, quizzing him, shrinking from him through timidity or running after him through interest. The new Minister of State! The chief of all the personnel of prefects, under-prefects, and secretaries-general represented there, lolling on these velvet divans in this vulgar greenroom.
All the glances, all the whisperings of the women, the frowns of his enemies, the cringing attitudes of dandified hangers-on, were making Vaudrey feel very uncomfortable, when to his great relief he suddenly observed coming towards him, peering hither and thither through his monocle, evidently in search of some one, Guy de Lissac, who immediately on catching sight of Vaudrey came towards him, greeting him with evident cordiality, tinged, however, with a proper reserve.
Sulpice was not long in breaking through this reserve. He hurried up to Guy, and seizing him by the hand, cried gayly:
"Do you know that I have been expecting this visit! You are the only one of my friends who has not yet congratulated me!"
"You know, my dear Minister," returned Guy in the same tone, "that it is really not such a great piece of luck to be made Minister that every one of your friends should be expected to fall upon your neck, crying bravo! You have mounted up to the capitol, but after all, the capitol is not such a very cheerful place, that I should illuminate a giorno. I am happy, however, if you are. I congratulate you, if you wash your hands of it, and that is all."
"You and my old friend Ramel," answered Sulpice, "are the two most original men that I know."
"With this difference however, Ramel is a Puritan, an ancient, a man of marble, and I am a boulevardier and a skeptic. He is a man of bronze—your Ramel! And your friend Lissac of simili-bronze! The proof of it is that I have been seeking you for half the evening to ask you to do me a favor."
"What favor, my dear fellow?" cried Vaudrey, his face lighting up with joy. "Anything in the world to please you."
"I was in Madame Marsy's box,—you do not know Madame Marsy? She is a great admirer of yours and makes a point to applaud you in the Chamber. She has prayed for your advent. She saw you in the manager's box a while ago, and she has asked me to present you to her, or rather, to present her to you, for I presume for your Excellency the ceremony is modified."
"Madame Marsy!" said Vaudrey. "Is she not an artist's widow? Her salon is a political centre, is it not?"
"Exactly. A recent salon opened in opposition to that of Madame Evan. An Athenian Republic! You do not object to that?"
"On the contrary! A republic cannot be founded without the aid of women."
"Ah!" cried Lissac, laughing. "Politics and honors have not changed you, I see."
"Changed me? With the exception that I have twenty years over my head, and alas! not so much hair as I had then upon it, I am the same as I was in 1860."
"Hotel Racine! Rue Racine!" said Lissac. "In those days, I dreamed of being Musset, I a gourmand, and what have I become? A spectator, a trifler, a Parisian, a rolling stone.—Nothing. And you who dreamed of being a second Barnave, Vergniaud or Barbaroux, your dream is realized."
"Realized!" said Vaudrey.
He made an effort to shake his head deprecatingly as if his vanity were not flattered by those honeyed words of his friend; but his glance displayed such sincere delight and so strong a desire to be effusive and in evidence, that he could not repress a smile upon hearing from the companion of his youth, such a confirmation of his triumph. They are our most severe critics, these friends of our youth, they who have listened to the stammering of our hopes and dreams of the future. And when at length we have conquered the future, these are often the very ones to rob us of it! Lissac, however, was not one of these envious ones.
"Let us go to Madame Marsy's box, my dear Guy," said Sulpice. "The more so because if she at all resembles her portrait at the last Salon, she must be lovely indeed."
He left the greenroom, leaning on the arm of Lissac, after throwing a glance backward, however, at the girls whirling about there, and where in the presence of their stiff, ancient superiors, the young sub-prefects still hid their faces behind their opera hats. Granet with Molina went to take leave of Vaudrey, leaving little Marie Launay smiling artlessly because the financier, the Tumbler, had said to her, in drawing down her eyelids with his coarse finger: "Will you close your periwinkles—you kid?"
"Your Excellency," the banker had said, cajoling his Excellency with his meaning glance, "I am always at your orders you know."
"To-morrow, at the Prisons' Commission, Monsieur le Ministre," said Granet. And amid salutations on every side Vaudrey withdrew, smiling and good-humored as usual.
In order to reach the box, Vaudrey had to cross the stage. The new scene was set. Buddhist temples with their grotesque shapes and huge statues stood out against a background of vivid blue sky, and on the canvas beyond, great pink flowers glowed amid refreshing verdure. Over all fell a soft fairy-like light from an electric lamp, casting on the floor a fantastic gleam, soft and clear as the rays of the moon. Sulpice smiled as he passed beneath this flood of light and saw his shadow projected before him as upon the glassy waters of a lake. It seemed to him that this sudden illumination, a sort of fantastic apotheosis as it were, was like the fairy-like aureole that attended his progress.
At the very moment of leaving the greenroom, Sulpice had jostled accidentally against a man of very grave aspect wearing a black coat closely buttoned. He was almost bald save for some long, thin, gray locks that hung about his huge ears, his cheeks had a hectic color and his skull was yellow. He entered this salon in a hesitating, inquisitive way, with wide-open eyes and a gourmand's movement of the nostrils, and gazed about the room, warm with lights and heavy with perfume.
Sulpice glanced at him carelessly and recognized him as the man whom he himself had superseded on Place Beauvau—a Puritan, a Huguenot, a widower, the father of five or six daughters, and as solemn and proper in his ordinary demeanor as a Sunday-school tract. Sulpice could not refrain from crying out merrily: "Bless me! Monsieur Pichereau!"
The other shook his butter-colored skull as if he had suddenly received a stinging blow on it with a switch, and his red face became crimson-hued at the sight of Sulpice, his successor in office, standing before him, politely holding out to him his two gloved hands.
Guy de Lissac was no longer laughing.
Their two Excellencies found themselves face to face at the foot of the greenroom staircase, in the midst of a crowd of brahmins, dancers, negresses, and female supernumeraries; two Excellencies meeting there; one smiling, the other grimacing beneath the glance of this curious, shrewd little world.
"Ah! I have caught you, my dear colleague," cried Sulpice, very much amused at Pichereau's embarrassed air, his coat buttoned close like a Quaker's and his little eyes blinking behind his spectacles, and looking as sheepish as a sacristan caught napping.
"Me?" stammered Pichereau. "Me? But my dear Minister, it's you—yes, you whom I came expressly to seek!"
"Here?" said Vaudrey.
"I had something to say to you—I—yes, I wanted—"
The unlucky Pichereau mechanically pulled and jerked at his waistcoat, then assuming a dignified, grave air, he whistled and hesitated, and finally stammered:
"I wished to speak with you—yes—to consult with you upon a matter of grave importance—concerning Protestant communities."
Sulpice could not restrain his laughter.
Pichereau, with his look of a Calvinistic preacher, was throwing from behind his spectacles glowing looks in the direction where Marie Launay stood listening to and laughing at the badinage of Molina. Some newspaper reporters, scenting a handy paragraph, came sauntering up to overhear some fragment of the conversation between the minister of yesterday and him of to-day.
Guy de Lissac stood carelessly by, secretly very much amused at Pichereau, who did not move, but rubbing his hands nervously together was trying to appear at ease, yet by his sour smile at his successor allowing it to be plainly seen how gladly he would have strangled Vaudrey.
"My dear colleague," said Sulpice, gayly, "we will talk elsewhere about your communities. This is hardly the place. Non est hic locus! Good-bye!"
"Good-bye, your Excellency," replied Pichereau with forced politeness.
Vaudrey drew Lissac away, saying with a suppressed laugh:
"Oh! oh! the Quaker! He has laid down his portfolio, but he has kept the key to the greenroom, it seems."
"It would appear," replied Guy, "that the door leading into the greenroom may open to scenes of consolation for fallen greatness. The blue eyes of Marie Launay always serve as a sparadrap to a fallen minister!"
"Was the fat Molina right? To lose the votes of the majority is perhaps the malady of the knee of ministers," said Vaudrey merrily.
He laughed again, very much amused at the irritable, peevish yet cringing attitude of Pichereau, the Genevan doctrinaire, who sought consolation in the greenroom of the ballet, whilst his five or six daughters sat at home, probably reading some chaste English romance, or practising sacred music within the range of the green spectacles of their governess.
"But!" said he gayly, "to fall from power is nothing, provided one falls into the arms of ballet-girls."
* * * * *
Molina burst out laughing ... when he ran his eye over the list and found accompanying the names of ballet-dancers and members of the chorus, the distinguished particles of some habitues.
Madame Marsy was awaiting Guy de Lissac's return from the greenroom. From the moment she caught sight of Vaudrey standing within the range of her opera-glasses, she was seized with the eager desire to make him an habitue of her salon, the new salon that had just been launched. Madame Marsy was bitten by that tarantula whose bite makes modern society move as if afflicted with Saint Vitus's dance. A widow, rich and still young, very much admired, she had set herself to play the role of a leader in society to pass away the time. She was one of those women forever passing before the reporters' note-book, as others pass in front of a photographic apparatus. Of her inner life, however, very little was known to the public. But the exact shade of her hair, the color of her eyes, the cut of her gowns, the address of her tradesmen, the menu of her dinners, the programme of her concerts, the names of her guests, the visitors to her salon, the address of her mansion, were all familiar to every one, and Madame Marsy was daily reported by the chroniclers to the letter, painted, dressed and undressed.
There was some romantic gossip whispered about her. It was said that she had formerly led Philippe Marsy, the artist, a hard life. This artist was the painter of Charity, the picture so much admired at the Luxembourg, where it hangs between a Nymph by Henner and a Portrait of a Lady by Carolus Duran. She was pretty, free, and sufficiently rich since the sale of the contents of Philippe Marsy's studio. His slightest sketches had fetched enormous sums under Monsieur Pillet's hammer at the Hotel Drouot, and Sabine after an appropriate interval of mourning, opened her salon.
Solitary, though surrounded by friends, she created no jealousy among her admirers, whose homage she received with perfect equanimity, as if become weary and desirous of a court but not of a favorite. She had a son at college who was growing up; he, however, was rarely to be met with in his mother's little hotel in the Boulevard Malesherbes. This pale, slender youth in his student's uniform would sometimes steal furtively up the staircase to pay his mother a visit as a stranger might have done, never staying long, however, but hurrying off again to rejoin an old woman who waited at the corner of the street and who would take him by the arm and walk away with him—Madame Marsy, his grandmother.
It was the grandmother who was bringing up the boy. She and a kind-hearted fellow, Francois Charriere, a sculptor, who as he said himself, was nothing of a genius, but who, however, designed models and advantageously sold them to the manufacturers of lamps in the Rue Saint-Louis au Marais. It was Charriere who, in fulfilment of a vow made to his friend Marsy, acted as guardian to the boy.
Nobody in Paris now remembered anything about Philippe Marsy. In the course of time, all the little rumors are hushed in the roar and rattle of Parisian life. Only some semi-flattering rumors were connected with Sabine's name, together with some mysterious reminiscences. Moreover, she had the special attraction of a hostess who imparts to her salon the peculiar charm and flavor of unceremonious hospitality. One was only obliged to wear a white cravat about his throat, he did not have to starch his wits.
Only very recently had Sabine Marsy's salon acquired the reputation of being an easy-going one, where one was sure of a welcome, a sort of rendezvous where every one could be found as in the corridor of a theatre on the night of a first appearance, or on the sidewalk of a boulevard; a salon well-filled, that could rank with the semi-official and very distinguished one presided over by Madame Evan, and those others quieter, more sober—if a little Calvinistic—of the select Alsatian colony.
Sabine Marsy must have had a great deal of tact, force of character and perseverance in carrying out her plans, to have reached this point, more difficult to her, moreover, than it would have been to any other, as she had no political backing whatever. Her connection with society was entirely through the world of artists. Many of these, however, had brought to her salon some of the Athenians of the political world, connoisseurs, good conversationalists, handsome men, who freely declared with Vaudrey, that a republic could not exist without the assistance of women, that to women Orleanism was due, and those charming fellows had made Madame Marsy's hospitable salon the fashion.
Besides it is easy enough in Paris to have a salon if one knows how to give dinners. Some squares of Bristol board engraved by Stern and posted to good addresses, will attract with an almost disconcerting facility, a crowd of visitors who will swarm around a festive board like bees around a honeycomb.
Paris is a town of guests.
Then too, Madame Marsy was herself so captivating. She was always on the watch for some new celebrity, as a game-keeper watches for a hare that he means to shoot presently. One of her daily tasks was to read the Journal Officiel in order to discover in the orator of to-day the Minister of State of to-morrow. She was always well informed beforehand which artist or sculptor would be likely to win the medal of honor at the Salon, and was the first to invite such a one and to let him know that it was she who had discovered him. In literature, she encouraged the new school, liking it for the attention it attracted. It was also her aim to give to her salon a literary as well as a political color. Artists and statesmen elbowed one another there.
For some days now, she had thought of giving a reception which was to be a surprise to her friends. She had heard of Japanese exhibitions being given at other houses. She herself was determined to give a soiree exotique. It happened just then that a friend of Guy de Lissac, Monsieur Jose de Rosas, a great lounger, had returned from a journey around the world. What a piece of good fortune! She too had known De Rosas formerly, and if she could only get him to consent, she could announce a most attractive soiree: the travels of such a man as Monsieur de Rosas: a rare treat!
"The Comtesse d'Horville gives literary matinees," said Sabine, quite on fire with the idea; "Madame Evan has poems and tragedies read at her receptions, I shall have lecturers and savants, since that is fashionable."
And what a woman wishes, a grandee of Spain willed, it appeared. Monsieur de Rosas decided, egged on a little by Guy de Lissac, to come and relate to Madame Marsy's friends his adventures in strange lands. The invitations to the soiree were already out.
Madame Marsy had also obtained a promise from three Ministers of State that they would be present. She had spread the news far and wide. A little more and she would have had their names printed on the programmes for the evening. She had had a success quite unlooked for—a promise from Monsieur Pichereau to be present—from Pichereau, that starched Puritan, and all the newspapers had announced his intention. When suddenly—stupidly—a cabinet crisis had arisen at the most unexpected moment, a useless crisis. Granet had interpellated Pichereau with a view to succeed him, and Pichereau fell without Granet succeeding him. A Ministry had been hastily formed, with Collard at its head, and Sulpice Vaudrey as Minister of the Interior in place of Pichereau! And all those Ministers of State who had promised to be present to hear Monsieur de Rosas at Madame Marsy's, fell from power with Pichereau.
"Such a Cabinet!" Sabine had exclaimed in a rage. "A Cabinet of pasteboard capuchins."
"A Ministry of pasteboard, certainly," Guy had answered.
Madame Marsy was quite beside herself. Granet indeed! Why could he not have waited a day or two longer before upsetting the whole administration. It would have been quite as easy to have overthrown Pichereau a day after her soiree as a few days before. Was Granet then, in a great hurry to be made minister? Oh! her opinion of him had always been a correct one! An ambitious schemer. He had triumphed, or at least he had expected to triumph. And the consequence was that Sabine found herself without a Minister to introduce to her guests. It was as if Granet had purposely designed this.
No, she did not know a single member of the new Cabinet. She had spoken once to the President of the council, Collard, a former advocate of Nantes, at a reception at the Elysee. Collard had even, in passing by her, torn off a morsel of the lace of her flounce. How charmingly, too, he had excused himself! But this acquaintanceship with him would hardly justify her in asking him brusquely to honor her with his presence at this soiree upon which her social success depended.
Her intimate friend, pretty Madame Gerson, who assisted her in doing the honors of her salon until the time when she herself would have a rival salon and take Sabine's guests away from her, sought in vain to comfort her by assuring her that Pichereau would be sure to come. He had promised to do so. He was a sincere man, and his word could be relied on. He would, moreover, bring his former colleagues from the Departments of Public Instruction, and Post and Telegraph. He had promised. Oh! yes, Pichereau! Pichereau, however, mattered very little to Sabine now! Ex-ministers, indeed! she could always have enough of them. It was not that kind that she wanted. She did not care about her salon being called the Invalides as that of a rival was called the Salon des Refusees. No, certainly not, that was something she would never consent to.
Granet's impatience had upset all her plans.
So Madame Marsy, side by side in her box with Madame Gerson, whose dark, brilliant beauty set off her own fair beauty, had listened with a bored and sulky manner to the first act of L'Africaine, while Monsieur Gerson conversed timidly, half under his breath, with Guy de Lissac, who made the fourth occupant of the box.
At the end of the second act, however, Lissac suddenly caught sight of Vaudrey's smiling countenance beside Granet's waxed moustaches in the manager's box.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "there is Vaudrey!"
Madame Marsy, however, had already caught sight of him. She turned her opera-glass upon the new Cabinet Minister, whose carefully arranged blonde beard was parted in the middle and spread out in two light tufts over his white necktie, his silky moustaches turned jauntily upwards against his fleshy cheeks. Sabine, continuing to look at the newcomer through her glass, saw as he moved within the shadow of the box, this man of forty, with a very agreeable and still youthful face, and as he leaned over the edge of the box to look at the audience, she noted that he had a slight bald spot on the top of his skull between the fair tufts that adorned the sides of his head.
"Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly, "I thought that he was a dark man."
"No, no," answered Lissac, "on the contrary, he was a fair, handsome youth when we both studied law here in Paris together."
Madame Marsy, as if she had been touched by an electric spark, turned quickly round on her chair to look at Guy, displaying to him as she did so, a lovely face, surmounting the most beautiful shoulders imaginable.
"What! you know the minister so intimately?"
"Then, my dear Lissac, you can do me the greatest favor. No, I do not ask you to do it, I insist on it."
Over the pretty Andalusian features of Madame Gerson, a mocking smile played.
"I have guessed it," she exclaimed.
"And so have I," said Lissac. "You wish me to present the new Minister of the Interior to you? You have a friend you want appointed to a prefecture."
"Not at all. I only want him to take Pichereau's place at my reception. My dear Lissac, my kind Lissac," she continued in dulcet tones, and clasping her little gloved hands entreatingly, like a child begging for a toy, "persuade Monsieur Vaudrey to accept this invitation of mine and you will be a love, you understand, Lissac, a love!"
But Guy had already risen and with a touch of his thumb snapping out his crush hat, he opened the door of the box, saying to Sabine as he did so:
"Take notice that I ask nothing in return for this favor!"
Madame Marsy began to laugh.
"Ah!" she cried, "that is discreet, but I am willing to subscribe to any condition!"
"Selika is cold beside you," said Lissac as he disappeared through the open doorway, "I will bring you your minister in ten minutes."
Sabine waited nervously. The curtain had just fallen on the third act. The manager's box was empty. Guy would doubtless be obliged to rejoin Vaudrey, and neither the minister nor his friend would be seen again. Just then some one knocked at the door of the box. Monsieur Gerson, overcome by fatigue, and weary as only a man can be who is dragged against his will night after night to some place of amusement, was dozing in the rear of the box. At a word from his wife he got up and hastened to open the door. It proved to be an artist, an old friend of Philippe Marsy, who came to invite Sabine to his studio to "admire" his Envoy that he had just finished for the Salon. Sabine received him graciously, and promised him somewhat stiffly that she would do so. She tapped impatiently with her fan upon her fingers as the orchestra began to play the prelude to the fourth act. It was quite certain that Lissac had failed in his mission.
Suddenly, in the luminous space made by the open door, Guy's elegant figure appeared for a moment, disappearing immediately to allow a man to pass who entered, smiling pleasantly, and at whom a group of people, standing in the lobby behind, were gazing. He bowed as Lissac said to Sabine:
"Allow me, madame, to present to you His Excellency the Minister of the Interior."
Sabine, suddenly beaming with joy, saw no one but Sulpice Vaudrey amongst the group of men in dress-clothes who gave way to allow the dignitary to pass. She had eyes only for him!
She arose, pushing back her chair instinctively, as the Minister entered, Monsieur and Madame Gerson standing at one side and Sabine on the other and bowing to him,—Sabine triumphant, Madame Gerson curious, Monsieur Gerson flattered though sleepy.
Sulpice seated himself at Madame Marsy's side, with the amiable condescension of a great man charmed to play the agreeable, and to visit, at the solicitation of a friend, a fair woman whom all the world delighted to honor. It seemed to him to put the finishing touch to that success and power which had been his only a few days.
He went quite artlessly and by instinct wherever he might have the chance to inhale admiring incense. It seemed to him as if he were swimming in refreshing waters. Everything delighted him. He wished to be obliging to every one. It seemed to him but natural that a woman of fashion like Sabine should wish to meet him and offer him her congratulations, as he himself, without knowing her, should desire to listen to her felicitations. To speak in complimentary terms was as natural to him as to listen to the compliments of others.
He delighted in the atmosphere of adulation which surrounded him, these two pretty women who smiled upon him with a gratitude so impressive, pleased him. Sabine appeared especially charming to him when, speaking with the captivating grace of a Parisian, she said:
"I hardly know how to thank my friend Monsieur de Lissac for inducing you to listen to the entreaties of one who solicits—"
"Solicits, madame?" said the minister with an eagerness which seemed already to answer her prayer affirmatively.
"I hope your Excellency will consent to honor with your presence a reunion of friends at my house—a reunion somewhat trivial, for this occasion, but clever enough."
"A reunion?" replied Vaudrey, still smiling.
"Monsieur de Lissac has not told you then, what my hopes are?"
"We are too old friends, Lissac and I, for him not to allow me the pleasure of hearing from your own lips, madame, in what way I may be of service to you, or to any of your friends."
Sabine smiled at this well-turned phrase uttered in the most gallant tone.
Who then, could have told her that Vaudrey was a provincial? An intimate enemy or an intimate friend. But he was not at all provincial. On the contrary, Vaudrey was quite charming.
"Monsieur de Rosas has had the kindness, your Excellency, to promise to come to my house next Saturday and give a chatty account of his travels. He will be, I am quite sure, most proud to know that in his audience—"
Sulpice neatly and half modestly turned aside the compliment that was approaching.
He knew Monsieur de Rosas. He had read and greatly admired some translations of the Persian poets by that lettered nobleman, which had been printed for circulation only amongst the author's most intimate friends. Vaudrey had first met Monsieur de Rosas at a meeting of a scientific society. Rosas was an eminent man as well as a poet, and one whom he would be greatly pleased to meet again. A hero of romance as erudite as a Benedictine. Charming, too, and clever! Something like a Cid who has become a boulevard lounger on returning from Central Asia.
This portrait of Rosas was a clever one indeed, and Sabine nodded acquiescence again and again as each point was hit off by Vaudrey. He, in his turn, basked comfortably in the light of her smiles, and listened with pleasure to the sound of his own voice. He could catch glimpses through the box curtains from between these two charming profiles—one a brunette, the other a blonde—of the vast auditorium all crimson and gold, blazing with lights and crowded with faces. From this well-dressed crowd, from these boxes where one caught sight of white gleaming shoulders, half-gloved arms, flower-decked heads, sparkling necklaces, flashing glances, it seemed to Vaudrey as if a strange, subtle perfume arose—the perfume of women, an intoxicating odor, in the midst of this radiancy that rivaled the brilliant sun at its rising.
Upon the stage, amid the dazzling splendor of the ballet, in the milky ray of the electric light, the swelling skirts whirled, the pink slippers that he had seen but a moment before near by, and the gleaming, silver helmets, the tinfoil and the spangles shone in the dance. A fairy light enveloped all these stage splendors; and this luxurious ensemble, as seen from the depths of the box, seemed to him to be the glory of an unending apotheosis, a sort of fete given to celebrate his entrance on his public career.
Then, in the unconcealed effusion of his delight, without any effort at effect, speaking frankly to this woman, to Guy, and to Gerson, as if he were communing with himself to the mocking accompaniment of this Hindoo music, he revealed his joys, his prospects, and his dreams. He replied to Sabine's congratulations by avowing his intention to devote himself entirely to his country.
"In short, your Excellency," she said, "you are really going to do great things?"
He gazed dreamily around the theatre, smiling as if he beheld some lucky vision, and answered:
"Really, madame, I accepted office only because I felt it was my duty and as a means of doing good. I intend to be just—to be honest. I should like to discover some unappreciated genius and raise him from the obscurity in which an unjust fate has shrouded him, to the height where he belongs. If we are to do no better than those we have succeeded, it was useless to turn them out!"
"Ah! pardieu," said Lissac, while Madame Marsy smiled and nodded approval of Vaudrey's words, "you and your colleagues are just now in the honeymoon of your power."
"We will endeavor to make this honeymoon of as long duration as possible," laughingly replied Sulpice. "I believe in the case of power, as in marriage, that the coming of the April moon is the fault of the parties connected with it."
"It takes a shrewd person indeed to know why April moons rise at all!" said Guy. Vaudrey's thoughts turned involuntarily toward Adrienne, his own pretty wife, who was waiting for him in the great lonely apartments at the Ministry which they had just taken possession of as they might occupy rooms at a hotel.
He felt a sudden desire to return to her, to tell her of the incidents of this evening. Yes, to tell her everything, even to his visit behind the scenes—but he remained where he was, not knowing how to take leave of Madame Marsy just yet, and she, in her turn, divined from the slackened conversation that he was anxious to be off.
"I was waiting for that strain," said Madame Marsy to Guy, "now that it is over, I will go."
Vaudrey did not reply, awaiting Sabine's departure, so as to conduct her to her carriage.
People hurried out into the lobbies to see him pass by. Upon the staircases, attendants and strangers saluted him. It seemed to Vaudrey that he moved among those who were in sympathy with him. Lissac followed him with Madame Gerson on his arm; her jaded husband sighed for a few hours' sleep.
In the sharp, frosty air of a night in January, Sulpice, enveloped in otter fur, stood with Madame Marsy on his arm, waiting for the appearance of that lady's carriage, which was emerging from the luminous depths of the Place, accompanied by another carriage without a monogram or crest; it was that of the minister.
Sulpice gazed before him down the Avenue de l'Opera, brilliant with light, and the bluish tints of the Jablockoff electric apparatus flooded him with its bright rays; it seemed to him as if all this brilliancy blazed for him, like the flattering apotheosis which had just before fallen upon him as he crossed the stage of the Opera. It seemed like an aureole lighted up especially to encircle him!
Sabine asked Vaudrey as he escorted her to her carriage:
"Madame Vaudrey will, I trust, do me the honor to accompany your Excellency to my house? I will take the liberty to-morrow of calling on her to invite her."
The Minister bowed a gracious acquiescence.
Sabine finally thanked him by a gracious smile: her small gloved hand raised the window of the coupe, and the carriage was driven off rapidly, amid the din of horses' hoofs.
"Good-bye," said Lissac to Vaudrey.
"Cannot I offer you a seat in my carriage?"
"Thank you, but I am not two steps away from the Rue d'Aumale."
Vaudrey turned towards Madame Gerson; she and her husband bowed low.
"May I not set you down at your house, madame?"
"Your Excellency is very kind, but we have our own carriage!"
"Au revoir," said Vaudrey to Lissac, "come and breakfast with me to-morrow."
"To the ministry!" said Vaudrey to the coachman as he stepped into his carriage.
He sank back upon the cushions with a feeling of delight as if glad to be alone. All the scenes of that evening floated again before his eyes. He felt once more in his nostrils the subtle, penetrating perfume of the greenroom, he saw again the blue eyes of the little danseuse. The admiring looks, the respectful salutes, the smiles of the women, the soft, caressing tones of Sabine, and Madame Gerson's pearly teeth, he saw or heard all these again, and above all, this word clear as a clarion, triumphant as a trumpet's blast: Success! All this came back again to him.
"You have succeeded!"
He heard Guy's voice again speaking this to him in joyous tones. Succeeded! It was certainly true.
Minister! Was it possible! He had at his beck and call a whole host of functionaries and servitors! He it was who had the power to make the whole machine of government move—he, the lawyer from Grenoble—who ten years ago would have thought it a great honor to have been appointed to a place in the department of Isere!
All those people whom he could see in the shadow of the lighted boulevards buying the newspapers at the kiosks, would read therein his name and least gesture and action.
"Monsieur le Ministre has taken up his residence on the Place Beauvau. Monsieur Vaudrey this morning received the heads of the Bureaus and the personnel of the Department of the Ministry of the Interior. Monsieur Vaudrey, with the assistance of Monsieur Henri Jacquier of Oise, undersecretary of State, is actively engaged in examining the reports of prefects and under-prefects. Monsieur will doubtless make some needed reforms in the administration of the prefectures." Everywhere, in all the newspapers, Monsieur Vaudrey! The Minister of the Interior! He, his name, his words, his projects, his deeds!
Success! Yes, it was his, it had come!
Never in his wildest visions had he dreamed of the success that he had attained. Never had he expected to catch sight of such bright rays as those which now shone down upon him from that star, which with the superstition of an ambitious man, he had singled out. Success! Success!
And now all the world should see what he would do. Already in his own little town, in his speeches, during the war, at the elections of 1871, and especially at Versailles, during the years of struggle and political intrigue, in the tribune, or as a commissioner or sub-commissioner, he had given proofs of his qualifications as a statesman, but the touchstone of man is power. Emerging from his semi-obscurity into the sunshine of success, he would at last show the world what he was and what he could do. Power! To command! To create! To impress his ideas upon a whole nation! To have succeeded! succeeded! succeeded! Sulpice's dreams were realized at last.
And whilst the ministerial carriage was driving at a gallop towards the Place Beauvau, Sabine, muffled up in her furs, her fine skin caressed by the blue-fox border of her pelisse, said to herself, quite indifferent to the man himself, but delighted to have a minister's name to enroll upon her list of guests: