The countess Sabine, as it had become customary to call Mme Muffat de Beuville in order to distinguish her from the count's mother, who had died the year before, was wont to receive every Tuesday in her house in the Rue Miromesnil at the corner of the Rue de Pentievre. It was a great square building, and the Muffats had lived in it for a hundred years or more. On the side of the street its frontage seemed to slumber, so lofty was it and dark, so sad and conventlike, with its great outer shutters, which were nearly always closed. And at the back in a little dark garden some trees had grown up and were straining toward the sunlight with such long slender branches that their tips were visible above the roof.
This particular Tuesday, toward ten o'clock in the evening, there were scarcely a dozen people in the drawing room. When she was only expecting intimate friends the countess opened neither the little drawing room nor the dining room. One felt more at home on such occasions and chatted round the fire. The drawing room was very large and very lofty; its four windows looked out upon the garden, from which, on this rainy evening of the close of April, issued a sensation of damp despite the great logs burning on the hearth. The sun never shone down into the room; in the daytime it was dimly lit up by a faint greenish light, but at night, when the lamps and the chandelier were burning, it looked merely a serious old chamber with its massive mahogany First Empire furniture, its hangings and chair coverings of yellow velvet, stamped with a large design. Entering it, one was in an atmosphere of cold dignity, of ancient manners, of a vanished age, the air of which seemed devotional.
Opposite the armchair, however, in which the count's mother had dieda square armchair of formal design and inhospitable padding, which stood by the hearthsidethe Countess Sabine was seated in a deep and cozy lounge, the red silk upholsteries of which were soft as eider down. It was the only piece of modern furniture there, a fanciful item introduced amid the prevailing severity and clashing with it.
"So we shall have the shah of Persia," the young woman was saying.
They were talking of the crowned heads who were coming to Paris for the exhibition. Several ladies had formed a circle round the hearth, and Mme du Joncquoy, whose brother, a diplomat, had just fulfilled a mission in the East, was giving some details about the court of Nazr-ed-Din.
"Are you out of sorts, my dear?" asked Mme Chantereau, the wife of an ironmaster, seeing the countess shivering slightly and growing pale as she did so.
"Oh no, not at all," replied the latter, smiling. "I felt a little cold. This drawing room takes so long to warm."
And with that she raised her melancholy eyes and scanned the walls from floor to ceiling. Her daughter Estelle, a slight, insignificant- looking girl of sixteen, the thankless period of life, quitted the large footstool on which she was sitting and silently came and propped up one of the logs which had rolled from its place. But Mme de Chezelles, a convent friend of Sabine's and her junior by five years, exclaimed:
"Dear me, I would gladly be possessed of a drawing room such as yours! At any rate, you are able to receive visitors. They only build boxes nowadays. Oh, if I were in your place!"
She ran giddily on and with lively gestures explained how she would alter the hangings, the seatseverything, in fact. Then she would give balls to which all Paris should run. Behind her seat her husband, a magistrate, stood listening with serious air. It was rumored that she deceived him quite openly, but people pardoned her offense and received her just the same, because, they said, "she's not answerable for her actions."
"Oh that Leonide!" the Countess Sabine contented herself by murmuring, smiling her faint smile the while.
With a languid movement she eked out the thought that was in her. After having lived there seventeen years she certainly would not alter her drawing room now. It would henceforth remain just such as her mother-in-law had wished to preserve it during her lifetime. Then returning to the subject of conversation:
"I have been assured," she said, "that we shall also have the king of Prussia and the emperor of Russia."
'Yes, some very fine fetes are promised," said Mme du Joncquoy.
The banker Steiner, not long since introduced into this circle by Leonide de Chezelles, who was acquainted with the whole of Parisian society, was sitting chatting on a sofa between two of the windows. He was questioning a deputy, from whom he was endeavoring with much adroitness to elicit news about a movement on the stock exchange of which he had his suspicions, while the Count Muffat, standing in front of them, was silently listening to their talk, looking, as he did so, even grayer than was his wont.
Four or five young men formed another group near the door round the Count Xavier de Vandeuvres, who in a low tone was telling them an anecdote. It was doubtless a very risky one, for they were choking with laughter. Companionless in the center of the room, a stout man, a chief clerk at the Ministry of the Interior, sat heavily in an armchair, dozing with his eyes open. But when one of the young men appeared to doubt the truth of the anecdote Vandeuvres raised his voice.
"You are too much of a skeptic, Foucarmont; you'll spoil all your pleasures that way."
And he returned to the ladies with a laugh. Last scion of a great family, of feminine manners and witty tongue, he was at that time running through a fortune with a rage of life and appetite which nothing could appease. His racing stable, which was one of the best known in Paris, cost him a fabulous amount of money; his betting losses at the Imperial Club amounted monthly to an alarming number of pounds, while taking one year with another, his mistresses would be always devouring now a farm, now some acres of arable land or forest, which amounted, in fact, to quite a respectable slice of his vast estates in Picardy.
"I advise you to call other people skeptics! Why, you don't believe a thing yourself," said Leonide, making shift to find him a little space in which to sit down at her side.
"It's you who spoil your own pleasures."
"Exactly," he replied. "I wish to make others benefit by my experience."
But the company imposed silence on him: he was scandalizing M. Venot. And, the ladies having changed their positions, a little old man of sixty, with bad teeth and a subtle smile, became visible in the depths of an easy chair. There he sat as comfortably as in his own house, listening to everybody's remarks and making none himself. With a slight gesture he announced himself by no means scandalized. Vandeuvres once more assumed his dignified bearing and added gravely:
"Monsieur Venot is fully aware that I believe what it is one's duty to believe."
It was an act of faith, and even Leonide appeared satisfied. The young men at the end of the room no longer laughed; the company were old fogies, and amusement was not to be found there. A cold breath of wind had passed over them, and amid the ensuing silence Steiner's nasal voice became audible. The deputy's discreet answers were at last driving him to desperation. For a second or two the Countess Sabine looked at the fire; then she resumed the conversation.
"I saw the king of Prussia at Baden-Baden last year. He's still full of vigor for his age."
"Count Bismarck is to accompany him," said Mme du Joncquoy. "Do you know the count? I lunched with him at my brother's ages ago, when he was representative of Prussia in Paris. There's a man now whose latest successes I cannot in the least understand."
"But why?" asked Mme Chantereau.
"Good gracious, how am I to explain? He doesn't please me. His appearance is boorish and underbred. Besides, so far as I am concerned, I find him stupid."
With that the whole room spoke of Count Bismarck, and opinions differed considerably. Vandeuvres knew him and assured the company that he was great in his cups and at play. But when the discussion was at its height the door was opened, and Hector de la Falois made his appearance. Fauchery, who followed in his wake, approached the countess and, bowing:
"Madame," he said, "I have not forgotten your extremely kind invitation."
She smiled and made a pretty little speech. The journalist, after bowing to the count, stood for some moments in the middle of the drawing room. He only recognized Steiner and accordingly looked rather out of his element. But Vandeuvres turned and came and shook hands with him. And forthwith, in his delight at the meeting and with a sudden desire to be confidential, Fauchery buttonholed him and said in a low voice:
"It's tomorrow. Are you going?"
"At midnight, at her house.
"I know, I know. I'm going with Blanche."
He wanted to escape and return to the ladies in order to urge yet another reason in M. de Bismarck's favor. But Fauchery detained him.
"You never will guess whom she has charged me to invite."
And with a slight nod he indicated Count Muffat, who was just then discussing a knotty point in the budget with Steiner and the deputy.
"It's impossible," said Vandeuvres, stupefaction and merriment in his tones. "My word on it! I had to swear that I would bring him to her. Indeed, that's one of my reasons for coming here."
Both laughed silently, and Vandeuvres, hurriedly rejoining the circle of ladies, cried out:
"I declare that on the contrary Monsieur de Bismarck is exceedingly witty. For instance, one evening he said a charmingly epigrammatic thing in my presence."
La Faloise meanwhile had heard the few rapid sentences thus whisperingly interchanged, and he gazed at Fauchery in hopes of an explanation which was not vouchsafed him. Of whom were they talking, and what were they going to do at midnight tomorrow? He did not leave his cousin's side again. The latter had gone and seated himself. He was especially interested by the Countess Sabine. Her name had often been mentioned in his presence, and he knew that, having been married at the age of seventeen, she must now be thirty-four and that since her marriage she had passed a cloistered existence with her husband and her mother-in-law. In society some spoke of her as a woman of religious chastity, while others pitied her and recalled to memory her charming bursts of laughter and the burning glances of her great eyes in the days prior to her imprisonment in this old town house. Fauchery scrutinized her and yet hesitated. One of his friends, a captain who had recently died in Mexico, had, on the very eve of his departure, made him one of those gross postprandial confessions, of which even the most prudent among men are occasionally guilty. But of this he only retained a vague recollection; they had dined not wisely but too well that evening, and when he saw the countess, in her black dress and with her quiet smile, seated in that Old World drawing room, he certainly had his doubts. A lamp which had been placed behind her threw into clear relief her dark, delicate, plump side face, wherein a certain heaviness in the contours of the mouth alone indicated a species of imperious sensuality.
"What do they want with their Bismarck?" muttered La Faloise, whose constant pretense it was to be bored in good society. "One's ready to kick the bucket here. A pretty idea of yours it was to want to come!"
Fauchery questioned him abruptly.
"Now tell me, does the countess admit someone to her embraces?"
"Oh dear, no, no! My dear fellow!" he stammered, manifestly taken aback and quite forgetting his pose. "Where d'you think we are?"
After which he was conscious of a want of up-to-dateness in this outburst of indignation and, throwing himself back on a great sofa, he added:
"Gad! I say no! But I don't know much about it. There's a little chap out there, Foucarmont they call him, who's to be met with everywhere and at every turn. One's seen faster men than that, though, you bet. However, it doesn't concern me, and indeed, all I know is that if the countess indulges in high jinks she's still pretty sly about it, for the thing never gets aboutnobody talks."
Then although Fauchery did not take the trouble to question him, he told him all he knew about the Muffats. Amid the conversation of the ladies, which still continued in front of the hearth, they both spoke in subdued tones, and, seeing them there with their white cravats and gloves, one might have supposed them to be discussing in chosen phraseology some really serious topic. Old Mme Muffat then, whom La Faloise had been well acquainted with, was an insufferable old lady, always hand in glove with the priests. She had the grand manner, besides, and an authoritative way of comporting herself, which bent everybody to her will. As to Muffat, he was an old man's child; his father, a general, had been created count by Napoleon I, and naturally he had found himself in favor after the second of December. He hadn't much gaiety of manner either, but he passed for a very honest man of straightforward intentions and understanding. Add to these a code of old aristocratic ideas and such a lofty conception of his duties at court, of his dignities and of his virtues, that he behaved like a god on wheels. It was the Mamma Muffat who had given him this precious education with its daily visits to the confessional, its complete absence of escapades and of all that is meant by youth. He was a practicing Christian and had attacks of faith of such fiery violence that they might be likened to accesses of burning fever. Finally, in order to add a last touch to the picture, La Faloise whispered something in his cousin's ear.
"You don't say so!" said the latter.
"On my word of honor, they swore it was true! He was still like that when he married."
Fauchery chuckled as he looked at the count, whose face, with its fringe of whiskers and absence of mustaches, seemed to have grown squarer and harder now that he was busy quoting figures to the writhing, struggling Steiner.
"My word, he's got a phiz for it!" murmured Fauchery. "A pretty present he made his wife! Poor little thing, how he must have bored her! She knows nothing about anything, I'll wager!"
Just then the Countess Sabine was saying something to him. But he did not hear her, so amusing and extraordinary did he esteem the Muffats' case. She repeated the question.
"Monsieur Fauchery, have you not published a sketch of Monsieur de Bismarck? You spoke with him once?"
He got up briskly and approached the circle of ladies, endeavoring to collect himself and soon with perfect ease of manner finding an answer:
"Dear me, madame, I assure you I wrote that 'portrait' with the help of biographies which had been published in Germany. I have never seen Monsieur de Bismarck."
He remained beside the countess and, while talking with her, continued his meditations. She did not look her age; one would have set her down as being twenty-eight at most, for her eyes, above all, which were filled with the dark blue shadow of her long eyelashes, retained the glowing light of youth. Bred in a divided family, so that she used to spend one month with the Marquis de Chouard, another with the marquise, she had been married very young, urged on, doubtless, by her father, whom she embarrassed after her mother's death. A terrible man was the marquis, a man about whom strange tales were beginning to be told, and that despite his lofty piety! Fauchery asked if he should have the honor of meeting him. Certainly her father was coming, but only very late; he had so much work on hand! The journalist thought he knew where the old gentleman passed his evenings and looked grave. But a mole, which he noticed close to her mouth on the countess's left cheek, surprised him. Nana had precisely the same mole. It was curious. Tiny hairs curled up on it, only they were golden in Nana's case, black as jet in this. Ah well, never mind! This woman enjoyed nobody's embraces.
"I have always felt a wish to know Queen Augusta," she said. "They say she is so good, so devout. Do you think she will accompany the king?"
"It is not thought that she will, madame," he replied.
She had no lovers: the thing was only too apparent. One had only to look at her there by the side of that daughter of hers, sitting so insignificant and constrained on her footstool. That sepulchral drawing room of hers, which exhaled odors suggestive of being in a church, spoke as plainly as words could of the iron hand, the austere mode of existence, that weighed her down. There was nothing suggestive of her own personality in that ancient abode, black with the damps of years. It was Muffat who made himself felt there, who dominated his surroundings with his devotional training, his penances and his fasts. But the sight of the little old gentleman with the black teeth and subtle smile whom he suddenly discovered in his armchair behind the group of ladies afforded him a yet more decisive argument. He knew the personage. It was Theophile Venot, a retired lawyer who had made a specialty of church cases. He had left off practice with a handsome fortune and was now leading a sufficiently mysterious existence, for he was received everywhere, treated with great deference and even somewhat feared, as though he had been the representative of a mighty force, an occult power, which was felt to be at his back. Nevertheless, his behavior was very humble. He was churchwarden at the Madeleine Church and had simply accepted the post of deputy mayor at the town house of the Ninth Arrondissement in order, as he said, to have something to do in his leisure time. Deuce take it, the countess was well guarded; there was nothing to be done in that quarter.
"You're right, it's enough to make one kick the bucket here," said Fauchery to his cousin when he had made good his escape from the circle of ladies. "We'll hook it!"
But Steiner, deserted at last by the Count Muffat and the deputy, came up in a fury. Drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and he grumbled huskily:
"Gad! Let 'em tell me nothing, if nothing they want to tell me. I shall find people who will talk."
Then he pushed the journalist into a corner and, altering his tone, said in accents of victory:
"It's tomorrow, eh? I'm of the party, my bully!"
"Indeed!" muttered Fauchery with some astonishment.
"You didn't know about it. Oh, I had lots of bother to find her at home. Besides, Mignon never would leave me alone."
"But they're to be there, are the Mignons."
"Yes, she told me so. In fact, she did receive my visit, and she invited me. Midnight punctually, after the play."
The banker was beaming. He winked and added with a peculiar emphasis on the words:
"You've worked it, eh?"
"Eh, what?" said Fauchery, pretending not to understand him. "She wanted to thank me for my article, so she came and called on me."
"Yes, yes. You fellows are fortunate. You get rewarded. By the by, who pays the piper tomorrow?"
The journalist made a slight outward movement with his arms, as though he would intimate that no one had ever been able to find out. But Vandeuvres called to Steiner, who knew M. de Bismarck. Mme du Joncquoy had almost convinced herself of the truth of her suppositions; she concluded with these words:
"He gave me an unpleasant impression. I think his face is evil. But I am quite willing to believe that he has a deal of wit. It would account for his successes."
"Without doubt," said the banker with a faint smile. He was a Jew from Frankfort.
Meanwhile La Faloise at last made bold to question his cousin. He followed him up and got inside his guard:
"There's supper at a woman's tomorrow evening? With which of them, eh? With which of them?"
Fauchery motioned to him that they were overheard and must respect the conventions here. The door had just been opened anew, and an old lady had come in, followed by a young man in whom the journalist recognized the truant schoolboy, perpetrator of the famous and as yet unforgotten "tres chic" of the Blonde Venus first night. This lady's arrival caused a stir among the company. The Countess Sabine had risen briskly from her seat in order to go and greet her, and she had taken both her hands in hers and addressed her as her "dear Madame Hugon." Seeing that his cousin viewed this little episode with some curiosity, La Faloise sought to arouse his interest and in a few brief phrases explained the position. Mme Hugon, widow of a notary, lived in retirement at Les Fondettes, an old estate of her family's in the neighborhood of Orleans, but she also kept up a small establishment in Paris in a house belonging to her in the Rue de Richelieu and was now passing some weeks there in order to settle her youngest son, who was reading the law and in his "first year." In old times she had been a dear friend of the Marquise de Chouard and had assisted at the birth of the countess, who, prior to her marriage, used to stay at her house for months at a time and even now was quite familiarly treated by her.
"I have brought Georges to see you," said Mme Hugon to Sabine. "He's grown, I trust."
The young man with his clear eyes and the fair curls which suggested a girl dressed up as a boy bowed easily to the countess and reminded her of a bout of battledore and shuttlecock they had had together two years ago at Les Fondettes.
"Philippe is not in Paris?" asked Count Muffat.
"Dear me, no!" replied the old lady. "He is always in garrison at Bourges." She had seated herself and began talking with considerable pride of her eldest son, a great big fellow who, after enlisting in a fit of waywardness, had of late very rapidly attained the rank of lieutenant. All the ladies behaved to her with respectful sympathy, and conversation was resumed in a tone at once more amiable and more refined. Fauchery, at sight of that respectable Mme Hugon, that motherly face lit up with such a kindly smile beneath its broad tresses of white hair, thought how foolish he had been to suspect the Countess Sabine even for an instant.
Nevertheless, the big chair with the red silk upholsteries in which the countess sat had attracted his attention. Its style struck him as crude, not to say fantastically suggestive, in that dim old drawing room. Certainly it was not the count who had inveigled thither that nest of voluptuous idleness. One might have described it as an experiment, marking the birth of an appetite and of an enjoyment. Then he forgot where he was, fell into brown study and in thought even harked back to that vague confidential announcement imparted to him one evening in the dining room of a restaurant. Impelled by a sort of sensuous curiosity, he had always wanted an introduction into the Muffats' circle, and now that his friend was in Mexico through all eternity, who could tell what might happen? "We shall see," he thought. It was a folly, doubtless, but the idea kept tormenting him; he felt himself drawn on and his animal nature aroused. The big chair had a rumpled lookits nether cushions had been tumbled, a fact which now amused him.
"Well, shall we be off?" asked La Faloise, mentally vowing that once outside he would find out the name of the woman with whom people were going to sup.
"All in good time," replied Fauchery.
But he was no longer in any hurry and excused himself on the score of the invitation he had been commissioned to give and had as yet not found a convenient opportunity to mention. The ladies were chatting about an assumption of the veil, a very touching ceremony by which the whole of Parisian society had for the last three days been greatly moved. It was the eldest daughter of the Baronne de Fougeray, who, under stress of an irresistible vocation, had just entered the Carmelite Convent. Mme Chantereau, a distant cousin of the Fougerays, told how the baroness had been obliged to take to her bed the day after the ceremony, so overdone was she with weeping.
"I had a very good place," declared Leonide. "I found it interesting."
Nevertheless, Mme Hugon pitied the poor mother. How sad to lose a daughter in such a way!
"I am accused of being overreligious," she said in her quiet, frank manner, "but that does not prevent me thinking the children very cruel who obstinately commit such suicide."
"Yes, it's a terrible thing," murmured the countess, shivering a little, as became a chilly person, and huddling herself anew in the depths of her big chair in front of the fire.
Then the ladies fell into a discussion. But their voices were discreetly attuned, while light trills of laughter now and again interrupted the gravity of their talk. The two lamps on the chimney piece, which had shades of rose-colored lace, cast a feeble light over them while on scattered pieces of furniture there burned but three other lamps, so that the great drawing room remained in soft shadow.
Steiner was getting bored. He was describing to Fauchery an escapade of that little Mme de Chezelles, whom he simply referred to as Leonide. "A blackguard woman," he said, lowering his voice behind the ladies' armchairs. Fauchery looked at her as she sat quaintly perched, in her voluminous ball dress of pale blue satin, on the corner of her armchair. She looked as slight and impudent as a boy, and he ended by feeling astonished at seeing her there. People comported themselves better at Caroline Hequet's, whose mother had arranged her house on serious principles. Here was a perfect subject for an article. Whuat a strange world was this world of Paris! The most rigid circles found themselves invaded. Evidently that silent Theophile Venot, who contented himself by smiling and showing his ugly teeth, must have been a legacy from the late countess. So, too, must have been such ladies of mature age as Mme Chantereau and Mme du Joncquoy, besides four or five old gentlemen who sat motionless in corners. The Count Muffat attracted to the house a series of functionaries, distinguished by the immaculate personal appearance which was at that time required of the men at the Tuileries. Among others there was the chief clerk, who still sat solitary in the middle of the room with his closely shorn cheeks, his vacant glance and his coat so tight of fit that he could scarce venture to move. Almost all the young men and certain individuals with distinguished, aristocratic manners were the Marquis de Chouard's contribution to the circle, he having kept touch with the Legitimist party after making his peace with the empire on his entrance into the Council of State. There remained Leonide de Chezelles and Steiner, an ugly little knot against which Mme Hugon's elderly and amiable serenity stood out in strange contrast. And Fauchery, having sketched out his article, named this last group "Countess Sabine's little clique."
"On another occasion," continued Steiner in still lower tones, "Leonide got her tenor down to Montauban. She was living in the Chateau de Beaurecueil, two leagues farther off, and she used to come in daily in a carriage and pair in order to visit him at the Lion d'Or, where he had put up. The carriage used to wait at the door, and Leonide would stay for hours in the house, while a crowd gathered round and looked at the horses."
There was a pause in the talk, and some solemn moments passed silently by in the lofty room. Two young men were whispering, but they ceased in their turn, and the hushed step of Count Muffat was alone audible as he crossed the floor. The lamps seemed to have paled; the fire was going out; a stern shadow fell athwart the old friends of the house where they sat in the chairs they had occupied there for forty years back. It was as though in a momentary pause of conversation the invited guests had become suddenly aware that the count's mother, in all her glacial stateliness, had returned among them.
But the Countess Sabine had once more resumed:
"Well, at last the news of it got about. The young man was likely to die, and that would explain the poor child's adoption of the religious life. Besides, they say that Monsieur de Fougeray wold never have given his consent to the marriage."
"They say heaps of other things too," cried Leonide giddily.
She fell a-laughing; she refused to talk. Sabine was won over by this gaiety and put her handkerchief up to her lips. And in the vast and solemn room their laughter sounded a note which struck Fauchery strangely, the note of delicate glass breaking. Assuredly here was the first beginning of the "little rift." Everyone began talking again. Mme du Joncquoy demurred; Mme Chantereau knew for certain that a marriage had been projected but that matters had gone no further; the men even ventured to give their opinions. For some minutes the conversation was a babel of opinions, in which the divers elements of the circle, whether Bonapartist or Legitimist or merely worldly and skeptical, appeared to jostle one another simultaneously. Estelle had rung to order wood to be put on the fire; the footman turned up the lamps; the room seemed to wake from sleep. Fauchery began smiling, as though once more at his ease.
"Egad, they become the brides of God when they couldn't be their cousin's," said Vandeuvres between his teeth.
The subject bored him, and he had rejoined Fauchery.
"My dear fellow, have you ever seen a woman who was really loved become a nun?"
He did not wait for an answer, for he had had enough of the topic, and in a hushed voice:
"Tell me," he said, "how many of us will there be tomorrow? There'll be the Mignons, Steiner, yourself, Blanche and I; who else?"
"Caroline, I believe, and Simonne and Gaga without doubt. One never knows exactly, does one? On such occasions one expects the party will number twenty, and you're really thirty."
Vandeuvres, who was looking at the ladies, passed abruptly to another subject:
"She must have been very nice-looking, that Du Joncquoy woman, some fifteen years ago. Poor Estelle has grown lankier than ever. What a nice lath to put into a bed!"
But interrupting himself, he returned to the subject of tomorrow's supper.
"What's so tiresome of those shows is that it's always the same set of women. One wants a novelty. Do try and invent a new girl. By Jove, happy thought! I'll go and beseech that stout man to bring the woman he was trotting about the other evening at the Varietes."
He referred to the chief clerk, sound asleep in the middle of the drawing room. Fauchery, afar off, amused himself by following this delicate negotiation. Vandeuvres had sat himself down by the stout man, who still looked very sedate. For some moments they both appeared to be discussing with much propriety the question before the house, which was, "How can one discover the exact state of feeling that urges a young girl to enter into the religious life?" Then the count returned with the remark:
"It's impossible. He swears she's straight. She'd refuse, and yet I would have wagered that I once saw her at Laure's."
"Eh, what? You go to Laure's?" murmured Fauchery with a chuckle. "You venture your reputation in places like that? I was under the impression that it was only we poor devils of outsiders who"
"Ah, dear boy, one ought to see every side of life."
Then they sneered and with sparkling eyes they compared notes about the table d'hote in the Rue des Martyrs, where big Laure Piedefer ran a dinner at three francs a head for little women in difficulties. A nice hole, where all the little women used to kiss Laure on the lips! And as the Countess Sabine, who had overheard a stray word or two, turned toward them, they started back, rubbing shoulders in excited merriment. They had not noticed that Georges Hugon was close by and that he was listening to them, blushing so hotly the while that a rosy flush had spread from his ears to his girlish throat. The infant was full of shame and of ecstasy. From the moment his mother had turned him loose in the room he had been hovering in the wake of Mme de Chezelles, the only woman present who struck him as being the thing. But after all is said and done, Nana licked her to fits!
"Yesterday evening," Mme Hugon was saying, "Georges took me to the play. Yes, we went to the Varietes, where I certainly had not set foot for the last ten years. That child adores music. As to me, I wasn't in the least amused, but he was so happy! They put extraordinary pieces on the stage nowadays. Besides, music delights me very little, I confess."
"What! You don't love music, madame?" cried Mme du Joncquoy, lifting her eyes to heaven. "Is it possible there should be people who don't love music?"
The exclamation of surprise was general. No one had dropped a single word concerning the performance at the Varietes, at which the good Mme Hugon had not understood any of the allusions. The ladies knew the piece but said nothing about it, and with that they plunged into the realm of sentiment and began discussing the masters in a tone of refined and ecstatical admiration. Mme du Joncquoy was not fond of any of them save Weber, while Mme Chantereau stood up for the Italians. The ladies' voices had turned soft and languishing, and in front of the hearth one might have fancied one's self listening in meditative, religious retirement to the faint, discreet music of a little chapel.
"Now let's see," murmured Vandeuvres, bringing Fauchery back into the middle of the drawing room, "notwithstanding it all, we must invent a woman for tomorrow. Shall we ask Steiner about it?"
"Oh, when Steiner's got hold of a woman," said the journalist, "it's because Paris has done with her."
Vandeuvres, however, was searching about on every side.
"Wait a bit," he continued, "the other day I met Foucarmont with a charming blonde. I'll go and tell him to bring her."
And he called to Foucarmont. They exchanged a few words rapidly. There must have been some sort of complication, for both of them, moving carefully forward and stepping over the dresses of the ladies, went off in quest of another young man with whom they continued the discussion in the embrasure of a window. Fauchery was left to himself and had just decided to proceed to the hearth, where Mme du Joncquoy was announcing that she never heard Weber played without at the same time seeing lakes, forests and sunrises over landscapes steeped in dew, when a hand touched his shoulder and a voice behind him remarked:
"It's not civil of you."
"What d'you mean?" he asked, turning round and recognizing La Faloise.
"Why, about that supper tomorrow. You might easily have got me invited."
Fauchery was at length about to state his reasons when Vandeuvres came back to tell him:
"It appears it isn't a girl of Foucarmont's. It's that man's flame out there. She won't be able to come. What a piece of bad luck! But all the same I've pressed Foucarmont into the service, and he's going to try to get Louise from the Palais-Royal."
"Is it not true, Monsieur de Vandeuvres," asked Mme Chantereau, raising her voice, "that Wagner's music was hissed last Sunday?"
"Oh, frightfully, madame," he made answer, coming forward with his usual exquisite politeness.
Then, as they did not detain him, he moved off and continued whispering in the journalist's ear:
"I'm going to press some more of them. These young fellows must know some little ladies."
With that he was observed to accost men and to engage them in conversation in his usual amiable and smiling way in every corner of the drawing room. He mixed with the various groups, said something confidently to everyone and walked away again with a sly wink and a secret signal or two. It looked as though he were giving out a watchword in that easy way of his. The news went round; the place of meeting was announced, while the ladies' sentimental dissertations on music served to conceal the small, feverish rumor of these recruiting operations.
"No, do not speak of your Germans," Mme Chantereau was saying. "Song is gaiety; song is light. Have you heard Patti in the Barber of Seville?"
"She was delicious!" murmured Leonide, who strummed none but operatic airs on her piano.
Meanwhile the Countess Sabine had rung. When on Tuesdays the number of visitors was small, tea was handed round the drawing room itself. While directing a footman to clear a round table the countess followed the Count de Vandeuvres with her eyes. She still smiled that vague smile which slightly disclosed her white teeth, and as the count passed she questioned him.
"What are you plotting, Monsieur de Vandeuvres?"
"What am I plotting, madame?" he answered quietly. "Nothing at all."
"Really! I saw you so busy. Pray, wait, you shall make yourself useful!"
She placed an album in his hands and asked him to put it on the piano. But he found means to inform Fauchery in a low whisper that they would have Tatan Nene, the most finely developed girl that winter, and Maria Blond, the same who had just made her first appearance at the Folies-Dramatiques. Meanwhile La Faloise stopped him at every step in hopes of receiving an invitation. He ended by offering himself, and Vandeuvres engaged him in the plot at once; only he made him promise to bring Clarisse with him, and when La Faloise pretended to scruple about certain points he quieted him by the remark:
"Since I invite you that's enough!"
Nevertheless, La Faloise would have much liked to know the name of the hostess. But the countess had recalled Vandeuvres and was questioning him as to the manner in which the English made tea. He often betook himself to England, where his horses ran. Then as though he had been inwardly following up quite a laborious train of thought during his remarks, he broke in with the question:
"And the marquis, by the by? Are we not to see him?"
"Oh, certainly you will! My father made me a formal promise that he would come," replied the countess. "But I'm beginning to be anxious. His duties will have kept him."
Vandeuvres smiled a discreet smile. He, too, seemed to have his doubts as to the exact nature of the Marquis de Chouard's duties. Indeed, he had been thinking of a pretty woman whom the marquis occasionally took into the country with him. Perhaps they could get her too.
In the meantime Fauchery decided that the moment had come in which to risk giving Count Muff his invitation. The evening, in fact, was drawing to a close.
"Are you serious?" asked Vandeuvres, who thought a joke was intended.
"Extremely serious. If I don't execute my commission she'll tear my eyes out. It's a case of landing her fish, you know."
"Well then, I'll help you, dear boy."
Eleven o'clock struck. Assisted by her daughter, the countess was pouring out the tea, and as hardly any guests save intimate friends had come, the cups and the platefuls of little cakes were being circulated without ceremony. Even the ladies did not leave their armchairs in front of the fire and sat sipping their tea and nibbling cakes which they held between their finger tips. From music the talk had declined to purveyors. Boissier was the only person for sweetmeats and Catherine for ices. Mme Chantereau, however, was all for Latinville. Speech grew more and more indolent, and a sense of lassitude was lulling the room to sleep. Steiner had once more set himself secretly to undermine the deputy, whom he held in a state of blockade in the corner of a settee. M. Venot, whose teeth must have been ruined by sweet things, was eating little dry cakes, one after the other, with a small nibbling sound suggestive of a mouse, while the chief clerk, his nose in a teacup, seemed never to be going to finish its contents. As to the countess, she went in a leisurely way from one guest to another, never pressing them, indeed, only pausing a second or two before the gentlemen whom she viewed with an air of dumb interrogation before she smiled and passed on. The great fire had flushed all her face, and she looked as if she were the sister of her daughter, who appeared so withered and ungainly at her side. When she drew near Fauchery, who was chatting with her husband and Vandeuvres, she noticed that they grew suddenly silent; accordingly she did not stop but handed the cup of tea she was offering to Georges Hugon beyond them.
"It's a lady who desires your company at supper," the journalist gaily continued, addressing Count Muffat.
The last-named, whose face had worn its gray look all the evening, seemed very much surprised. What lady was it?
"Oh, Nana!" said Vandeuvres, by way of forcing the invitation.
The count became more grave than before. His eyelids trembled just perceptibly, while a look of discomfort, such as headache produces, hovered for a moment athwart his forehead.
"But I'm not acquainted with that lady," he murmured.
"Come, come, you went to her house," remarked Vandeuvres.
"What d'you say? I went to her house? Oh yes, the other day, in behalf of the Benevolent Organization. I had forgotten about it. But, no matter, I am not acquainted with her, and I cannot accept."
He had adopted an icy expression in order to make them understand that this jest did not appear to him to be in good taste. A man of his position did not sit down at tables of such women as that. Vandeuvres protested: it was to be a supper party of dramatic and artistic people, and talent excused everything. But without listening further to the arguments urged by Fauchery, who spoke of a dinner where the Prince of Scots, the son of a queen, had sat down beside an ex-music-hall singer, the count only emphasized his refusal. In so doing, he allowed himself, despite his great politeness, to be guilty of an irritated gesture.
Georges and La Faloise, standing in front of each other drinking their tea, had overheard the two or three phrases exchanged in their immediate neighborhood.
"Jove, it's at Nana's then," murmured La Faloise. "I might have expected as much!"
Georges said nothing, but he was all aflame. His fair hair was in disorder; his blue eyes shone like tapers, so fiercely had the vice, which for some days past had surrounded him, inflamed and stirred his blood. At last he was going to plunge into all that he had dreamed of!
"I don't know the address," La Faloise resumed.
"She lives on a third floor in the Boulevard Haussmann, between the Rue de l'Arcade and the Rue Pesquier," said Georges all in a breath.
And when the other looked at him in much astonishment, he added, turning very red and fit to sink into the ground with embarrassment and conceit:
"I'm of the party. She invited me this morning."
But there was a great stir in the drawing room, and Vandeuvres and Fauchery could not continue pressing the count. The Marquis de Chouard had just come in, and everyone was anxious to greet him. He had moved painfully forward, his legs failing under him, and he now stood in the middle of the room with pallid face and eyes blinking, as though he had just come out of some dark alley and were blinded by the brightness of the lamps.
"I scarcely hoped to see you tonight, Father," said the countess. "I should have been anxious till the morning."
He looked at her without answering, as a man might who fails to understand. His nose, which loomed immense on his shorn face, looked like a swollen pimple, while his lower lip hung down. Seeing him such a wreck, Mme Hugon, full of kind compassion, said pitying things to him.
"You work too hard. You ought to rest yourself. At our age we ought to leave work to the young people."
"Work! Ah yes, to be sure, work!" he stammered at last. "Always plenty of work."
He began to pull himself together, straightening up his bent figure and passing his hand, as was his wont, over his scant gray hair, of which a few locks strayed behind his ears.
"At what are you working as late as this?" asked Mme du Joncquoy. "I thought you were at the financial minister's reception?"
But the countess intervened with:
"My father had to study the question of a projected law."
"Yes, a projected law," he said; "exactly so, a projected law. I shut myself up for that reason. It refers to work in factories, and I was anxious for a proper observance of the Lord's day of rest. It is really shameful that the government is unwilling to act with vigor in the matter. Churches are growing empty; we are running headlong to ruin."
Vandeuvres had exchanged glances with Fauchery. They both happened to be behind the marquis, and they were scanning him suspiciously. When Vandeuvres found an opportunity to take him aside and to speak to him about the good-looking creature he was in the habit of taking down into the country, the old man affected extreme surprise. Perhaps someone had seen him with the Baroness Decker, at whose house at Viroflay he sometimes spent a day or so. Vandeuvres's sole vengeance was an abrupt question:
"Tell me, where have you been straying to? Your elbow is covered with cobwebs and plaster."
"My elbow," he muttered, slightly disturbed. "Yes indeed, it's true. A speck or two, I must have come in for them on my way down from my office."
Several people were taking their departure. It was close on midnight. Two footmen were noiselessly removing the empty cups and the plates with cakes. In front of the hearth the ladies had re- formed and, at the same time, narrowed their circle and were chatting more carelessly than before in the languid atmosphere peculiar to the close of a party. The very room was going to sleep, and slowly creeping shadows were cast by its walls. It was then Fauchery spoke of departure. Yet he once more forgot his intention at sight of the Countess Sabine. She was resting from her cares as hostess, and as she sat in her wonted seat, silent, her eyes fixed on a log which was turning into embers, her face appeared so white and so impassable that doubt again possessed him. In the glow of the fire the small black hairs on the mole at the corner of her lip became white. It was Nana's very mole, down to the color of the hair. He could not refrain from whispering something about it in Vandeuvres's ear. Gad, it was true; the other had never noticed it before. And both men continued this comparison of Nana and the countess. They discovered a vague resemblance about the chin and the mouth, but the eyes were not at all alike. Then, too, Nana had a good-natured expression, while with the countess it was hard to decideshe might have been a cat, sleeping with claws withdrawn and paws stirred by a scarce-perceptible nervous quiver.
"All the same, one could have her," declared Fauchery.
Vandeuvres stripped her at a glance.
"Yes, one could, all the same," he said. "But I think nothing of the thighs, you know. Will you bet she has no thighs?"
He stopped, for Fauchery touched him briskly on the arm and showed him Estelle, sitting close to them on her footstool. They had raised their voices without noticing her, and she must have overheard them. Nevertheless, she continued sitting there stiff and motionless, not a hair having lifted on her thin neck, which was that of a girl who has shot up all too quickly. Thereupon they retired three or four paces, and Vandeuvres vowed that the countess was a very honest woman. Just then voices were raised in front of the hearth. Mme du Joncquoy was saying:
"I was willing to grant you that Monsieur de Bismarck was perhaps a witty man. Only, if you go as far as to talk of genius"
The ladies had come round again to their earliest topic of conversation.
"What the deuce! Still Monsieur de Bismarck!" muttered Fauchery. "This time I make my escape for good and all."
"Wait a bit," said Vandeuvres, "we must have a definite no from the count."
The Count Muffat was talking to his father-in-law and a certain serious-looking gentleman. Vandeuvres drew him away and renewed the invitation, backing it up with the information that he was to be at the supper himself. A man might go anywhere; no one could think of suspecting evil where at most there could only be curiosity. The count listened to these arguments with downcast eyes and expressionless face. Vandeuvres felt him to be hesitating when the Marquis de Chouard approached with a look of interrogation. And when the latter was informed of the question in hand and Fauchery had invited him in his turn, he looked at his son-in-law furtively. There ensued an embarrassed silence, but both men encouraged one another and would doubtless have ended by accepting had not Count Muffat perceived M. Venot's gaze fixed upon him. The little old man was no longer smiling; his face was cadaverous, his eyes bright and keen as steel.
'No," replied the count directly, in so decisive a tone that further insistence became impossible.
Then the marquis refused with even greater severity of expression. He talked morality. The aristocratic classes ought to set a good example. Fauchery smiled and shook hands with Vandeuvres. He did not wait for him and took his departure immediately, for he was due at his newspaper office.
"At Nana's at midnight, eh?"
La Faloise retired too. Steiner had made his bow to the countess. Other men followed them, and the same phrase went round"At midnight, at Nana's"as they went to get their overcoats in the anteroom. Georges, who could not leave without his mother, had stationed himself at the door, where he gave the exact address. "Third floor, door on your left." Yet before going out Fauchery gave a final glance. Vandeuvres had again resumed his position among the ladies and was laughing with Leonide de Chezelles. Count Muffat and the Marquis de Chouard were joining in the conversation, while the good Mme Hugon was falling asleep open-eyed. Lost among the petticoats, M. Venot was his own small self again and smiled as of old. Twelve struck slowly in the great solemn room.
"Whatwhat do you mean?" Mme du Joncquoy resumed. "You imagine that Monsieur de Bismarck will make war on us and beat us! Oh, that's unbearable!"
Indeed, they were laughing round Mme Chantereau, who had just repeated an assertion she had heard made in Alsace, where her husband owned a foundry.
"We have the emperor, fortunately," said Count Muffat in his grave, official way.
It was the last phrase Fauchery was able to catch. He closed the door after casting one more glance in the direction of the Countess Sabine. She was talking sedately with the chief clerk and seemed to be interested in that stout individual's conversation. Assuredly he must have been deceiving himself. There was no "little rift" there at all. It was a pity.
"You're not coming down then?" La Faloise shouted up to him from the entrance hall.
And out on the pavement, as they separated, they once more repeated:
"Tomorrow, at Nana's."