When the cashier had given him the change out of his five francpiece, George Duroy left the restaurant.
As he had a good carriage, both naturally and from his military training, he drew himself up, twirled his moustache, and threw upon the lingering customers a rapid and sweeping glance—one of those glances which take in everything within their range like a casting net.
The women looked up at him in turn—three little work-girls, a middle-aged music mistress, disheveled, untidy, and wearing a bonnet always dusty and a dress always awry; and two shopkeepers’ wives dining with their husbands—all regular customers at this slap-bang establishment.
When he was on the pavement outside, he stood still for a moment, asking himself what he should do. It was the 28th of June, and he had just three francs forty centimes in his pocket to carry him to the end of the month. This meant the option of two dinners without lunch or two lunches without dinner. He reflected that as the earlier repasts cost twenty sous apiece, and the latter thirty, he would, if he were content with the lunches, be one franc twenty centimes to the good, which would further represent two snacks of bread and sausage and two bocks of beer on the boulevards. This latter item was his greatest extravagance and his chief pleasure of a night; and he began to descend the Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette.
He walked as in the days when he had worn a hussar uniform, his chest thrown out and his legs slightly apart, as if he had just left the saddle, pushing his way through the crowded street, and shouldering folk to avoid having to step aside. He wore his somewhat shabby hat on one side, and brought his heels smartly down on the pavement. He seemed ever ready to defy somebody or something, the passers-by, the houses, the whole city, retaining all the swagger of a dashing cavalry-man in civil life.
Although wearing a sixty-franc suit, he was not devoid of a certain somewhat loud elegance. Tall, well-built, fair, with a curly moustache twisted up at the ends, bright blue eyes with small pupils, and reddish-brown hair curling naturally and parted in the middle, he bore a strong resemblance to the dare-devil of popular romances.
It was one of those summer evenings on which air seems to be lacking in Paris. The city, hot as an oven, seemed to swelter in the stifling night. The sewers breathed out their poisonous breath through their granite mouths, and the underground kitchens gave forth to the street through their windows the stench of dishwater and stale sauces.
The doorkeepers in their shirtsleeves sat astride straw-bottomed chairs within the carriage entrances to the houses, smoking their pipes, and the pedestrians walked with flagging steps, head bare, and hat in hand.
When George Duroy reached the boulevards he paused again, undecided as to what he should do. He now thought of going on to the Champs Elysées and the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne to seek a little fresh air under the trees, but another wish also assailed him, a desire for a love affair.
What shape would it take? He did not know, but he had been awaiting it for three months, night and day. Occasionally, thanks to his good looks and gallant bearing, he gleaned a few crumbs of love here and there, but he was always hoping for something further and better.
With empty pockets and hot blood, he kindled at the contact of the prowlers who murmur at street corners: “Will you come home with me, dear?” but he dared not follow them, not being able to pay them, and, besides, he was awaiting something else, less venally vulgar kisses.
He liked, however, the localities in which women of the town swarm—their balls, their cafés, and their streets. He liked to rub shoulders with them, speak to them, chaff them, inhale their strong perfumes, feel himself near them. They were women at any rate, women made for love. He did not despise them with the innate contempt of a well-born man.
He turned towards the Madeleine, following the flux of the crowd which flowed along overcome by the heat. The chief cafés, filled with customers, were overflowing on to the pavement, and displayed their drinking public under the dazzling glare of their lit-up facias. In front of them, on little tables, square or round, were glasses holding fluids of every shade, red, yellow, green, brown, and inside the decanters glittered the large transparent cylinders of ice, serving to cool the bright, clear water. Duroy had slackened his pace, a longing to drink parched his throat.
A hot thirst, a summer evening’s thirst assailed him, and he fancied the delightful sensation of cool drinks flowing across his palate. But if he only drank two bocks of beer in the evening, farewell to the slender supper of the morrow, and he was only too well acquainted with the hours of short commons at the end of the month.
He said to himself: “I must hold out till ten o’clock, and then I’ll have my bock at the American café. Confound it, how thirsty I am though.” And he scanned the men seated at the tables drinking, all the people who could quench their thirst as much as they pleased. He went on, passing in front of the cafés with a sprightly swaggering air, and guessing at a glance from their dress and bearing how much money each customer ought to have about him. Wrath against these men quietly sitting there rose up within him. If their pockets were rummaged, gold, silver, and coppers would be found in them. On an average each one must have at least two louis. There were certainly a hundred to a café, a hundred times two louis is four thousand francs. He murmured “the swine,” as he walked gracefully past them. If he could have had hold of one of them at a nice dark corner he would have twisted his neck without scruple, as he used to do the country-folk’s fowls on field-days.
And he recalled his two years in Africa and the way in which he used to pillage the Arabs when stationed at little out-posts in the south. A bright and cruel smile flitted across his lips at the recollection of an escapade which had cost the lives of three men of the Ouled-Alane tribe, and had furnished him and his comrades with a score of fowls, a couple of sheep, some gold, and food for laughter for six months.
The culprits had never been found, and, what is more, they had hardly been looked for, the Arab being looked upon as somewhat in the light of the natural prey of the soldier.
In Paris it was another thing. One could not plunder prettily, sword by side and revolver in hand, far from civil authority. He felt in his heart all the instincts of a sub-officer let loose in a conquered country. He certainly regretted his two years in the desert. What a pity he had not stopped there. But, then, he had hoped something better in returning home. And now—ah! yes, it was very nice now, was it not?
He clicked his tongue as if to verify the parched state of his palate.
The crowd swept past him slowly, and he kept thinking. “Set of hogs—all these idiots have money in their waistcoat pockets.” He pushed against people and softly whistled a lively tune. Gentlemen whom he thus elbowed turned grumbling, and women murmured: “What a brute!”
He passed the Vaudeville Theater and stopped before the American café, asking himself whether he should not take his bock, so greatly did thirst torture him. Before making up his mind, he glanced at the illuminated clock. It was a quarter past nine. He knew himself that as soon as the glassful of beer was before him he would gulp it down. What would he do then up to eleven o’clock?
He passed on. “I will go as far as the Madeleine,” he said, “and walk back slowly.”
As he reached the corner of the Palace de l’Opera, he passed a stout young fellow, whose face he vaguely recollected having seen somewhere. He began to follow him, turning over his recollections and repeating to himself half-aloud: “Where the deuce did I know that joker?”
He searched without being able to recollect, and then all at once, by a strange phenomenon of memory, the same man appeared to him thinner, younger, and clad in a hussar uniform. He exclaimed aloud: “What, Forestier!” and stepping out he tapped the other on the shoulder. The promenader turned round and looked at him, and then said: “What is it, sir?”
Duroy broke into a laugh. “Don’t you know me?” said he.
“George Duroy, of the 6th Hussars.”
Forestier held out his hands, exclaiming: “What, old fellow! How are you?”
“Very well, and you?”
“Oh, not very brilliant! Just fancy, I have a chest in brown paper now. I cough six months out of twelve, through a cold I caught at Bougival the year of my return to Paris, four years ago.”
And Forestier, taking his old comrade’s arm, spoke to him of his illness, related the consultations, opinions, and advice of the doctors, and the difficulty of following this advice in his position. He was told to spend the winter in the South, but how could he? He was married, and a journalist in a good position.
“I am political editor of the Vie Francaise. I write the proceedings in the Senate for the Salut, and from time to time literary criticisms for the Planète. That is so. I have made my way.”
Duroy looked at him with surprise. He was greatly changed, matured. He had now the manner, bearing, and dress of a man in a good position and sure of himself, and the stomach of a man who dines well. Formerly he had been thin, slight, supple, heedless, brawling, noisy, and always ready for a spree. In three years Paris had turned him into someone quite different, stout and serious, and with some white hairs about his temples, though he was not more than twenty-seven.
Forestier asked: “Where are you going?”
Duroy answered: “Nowhere; I am just taking a stroll before turning in.”
“Well, will you come with me to the Vie Francaise, where I have some proofs to correct, and then we will take a bock together?”
They began to walk on, arm-in-arm, with that easy familiarity existing between school-fellows and men in the same regiment.
“What are you doing in Paris?” asked Forestier.
Duroy shrugged his shoulders. “Simply starving. As soon as I finished my term of service I came here—to make a fortune, or rather for the sake of living in Paris; and for six months I have been a clerk in the offices of the Northern Railway at fifteen hundred francs a year, nothing more.”
Forestier murmured: “Hang it, that’s not much!”
“I should think not. But how can I get out of it? I am alone; I don’t know anyone; I can get no one to recommend me. It is not goodwill that is lacking, but means.”
His comrade scanned him from head to foot, like a practical man examining a subject, and then said, in a tone of conviction: “You see, my boy, everything depends upon assurance here. A clever fellow can more easily become a minister than an under-secretary. One must obtrude one’s self on people; not ask things of them. But how the deuce is it that you could not get hold of anything better than a clerk’s berth on the Northern Railway?”
Duroy replied: “I looked about everywhere, but could not find anything. But I have something in view just now; I have been offered a riding-master’s place at Pellerin’s. There I shall get three thousand francs at the lowest.”
Forestier stopped short. “Don’t do that; it is stupid, when you ought to be earning ten thousand francs. You would nip your future in the bud. In your office, at any rate, you are hidden; no one knows you; you can emerge from it if you are strong enough to make your way. But once a riding-master, and it is all over. It is as if you were head-waiter at a place where all Paris goes to dine. When once you have given riding lessons to people in society or to their children, they will never be able to look upon you as an equal.”
He remained silent for a few moments, evidently reflecting, and then asked:
“Have you a bachelor’s degree?”
“No; I failed to pass twice.”
“That is no matter, as long as you studied for it. If anyone mentions Cicero or Tiberius, you know pretty well what they are talking about?”
“Yes; pretty well.”
“Good; no one knows any more, with the exception of a score of idiots who have taken the trouble. It is not difficult to pass for being well informed; the great thing is not to be caught in some blunder. You can maneuver, avoid the difficulty, turn the obstacle, and floor others by means of a dictionary. Men are all as stupid as geese and ignorant as donkeys.”
He spoke like a self-possessed blade who knows what life is, and smiled as he watched the crowd go by. But all at once he began to cough, and stopped again until the fit was over, adding, in a tone of discouragement: “Isn’t it aggravating not to be able to get rid of this cough? And we are in the middle of summer. Oh! this winter I shall go and get cured at Mentone. Health before everything.”
They halted on the Boulevard Poissonière before a large glass door, on the inner side of which an open newspaper was pasted. Three passers-by had stopped and were reading it.
Above the door, stretched in large letters of flame, outlined by gas jets, the inscription La Vie Francaise. The pedestrians passing into the light shed by these three dazzling words suddenly appeared as visible as in broad daylight, then disappeared again into darkness.
Forestier pushed the door open, saying, “Come in.” Duroy entered, ascended an ornate yet dirty staircase, visible from the street, passed through an ante-room where two messengers bowed to his companion, and reached a kind of waiting-room, shabby and dusty, upholstered in dirty green Utrecht velvet, covered with spots and stains, and worn in places as if mice had been gnawing it.
“Sit down,” said Forestier. “I will be back in five minutes.”
And he disappeared through one of the three doors opening into the room.
A strange, special, indescribable odor, the odor of a newspaper office, floated in the air of the room. Duroy remained motionless, slightly intimidated, above all surprised. From time to time folk passed hurriedly before him, coming in at one door and going out at another before he had time to look at them.
They were now young lads, with an appearance of haste, holding in their hand a sheet of paper which fluttered from the hurry of their progress; now compositors, whose white blouses, spotted with ink, revealed a clean shirt collar and cloth trousers like those of men of fashion, and who carefully carried strips of printed paper, fresh proofs damp from the press. Sometimes a gentleman entered rather too elegantly attired, his waist too tightly pinched by his frock-coat, his leg too well set off by the cut of his trousers, his foot squeezed into a shoe too pointed at the toe, some fashionable reporter bringing in the echoes of the evening.
Others, too, arrived, serious, important-looking men, wearing tall hats with flat brims, as if this shape distinguished them from the rest of mankind.
Forestier reappeared holding the arm of a tall, thin fellow, between thirty and forty years of age, in evening dress, very dark, with his moustache ends stiffened in sharp points, and an insolent and self-satisfied bearing.
Forestier said to him: “Good night, dear master.”
The other shook hands with him, saying: “Good night, my dear fellow,” and went downstairs whistling, with his cane under his arm.
Duroy asked: “Who is that?”
“Jacques Rival, you know, the celebrated descriptive writer, the duellist. He has just been correcting his proofs. Garin, Montel, and he are the three best descriptive writers, for facts and points, we have in Paris. He gets thirty thousand francs a year here for two articles a week.”
As they were leaving they met a short, stout man, with long hair and untidy appearance, who was puffing as he came up the stairs.
Forestier bowed low to him. “Norbert de Varenne,” said he, “the poet; the author of ‘Les Soleils Morts’; another who gets long prices. Every tale he writes for us costs three hundred francs, and the longest do not run to two hundred lines. But let us turn into the Neapolitan café, I am beginning to choke with thirst.”
As soon as they were seated at a table in the café, Forestier called for two bocks, and drank off his own at a single draught, while Duroy sipped his beer in slow mouthfuls, tasting it and relishing it like something rare and precious.
His companion was silent, and seemed to be reflecting. Suddenly he exclaimed: “Why don’t you try journalism?”
The other looked at him in surprise, and then said: “But, you know, I have never written anything.”
“Bah! everyone must begin. I could give you a job to hunt up information for me—to make calls and inquiries. You would have to start with two hundred and fifty francs a month and your cab hire. Shall I speak to the manager about it?”
“Very well, then, come and dine with me to-morrow. I shall only have five or six people—the governor, Monsieur Walter and his wife, Jacques Rival, and Norbert de Varenne, whom you have just seen, and a lady, a friend of my wife. Is it settled?”
Duroy hesitated, blushing and perplexed. At length he murmured: “You see, I have no clothes.”
Forestier was astounded. “You have no dress clothes? Hang it all, they are indispensable, though. In Paris one would be better off without a bed than without a dress suit.”
Then, suddenly feeling in his waistcoat pocket, he drew out some gold, took two louis, placed them in front of his old comrade, and said in a cordial and familiar tone: “You will pay me back when you can. Hire or arrange to pay by installments for the clothes you want, whichever you like, but come and dine with me to-morrow, half-past seven, number seventeen Rue Fontaine.”
Duroy, confused, picked up the money, stammering: “You are too good; I am very much obliged to you; you may be sure I shall not forget.”
The other interrupted him. “All right. Another bock, eh? Waiter, two bocks.”
Then, when they had drunk them, the journalist said: “Will you stroll about a bit for an hour?”
And they set out again in the direction of the Madeleine.
“What shall we, do?” said Forestier. “They say that in Paris a lounger can always find something to amuse him, but it is not true. I, when I want to lounge about of an evening, never know where to go. A drive round the Bois de Boulogne is only amusing with a woman, and one has not always one to hand; the café concerts may please my chemist and his wife, but not me. Then what is there to do? Nothing. There ought to be a summer garden like the Parc Monceau, open at night, where one would hear very good music while sipping cool drinks under the trees. It should not be a pleasure resort, but a lounging place, with a high price for entrance in order to attract the fine ladies. One ought to be able to stroll along well-graveled walks lit up by electric light, and to sit down when one wished to hear the music near or at a distance. We had about the sort of thing formerly at Musard’s, but with a smack of the low-class dancing-room, and too much dance music, not enough space, not enough shade, not enough gloom. It would want a very fine garden and a very extensive one. It would be delightful. Where shall we go?”
Duroy, rather perplexed, did not know what to say; at length he made up his mind. “I have never been in the Folies Bergère. I should not mind taking a look round there,” he said.
“The Folies Bergère,” exclaimed his companion, “the deuce; we shall roast there as in an oven. But, very well, then, it is always funny there.”
And they turned on their heels to make their way to the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre.
The lit-up front of the establishment threw a bright light into the four streets which met in front of it. A string of cabs were waiting for the close of the performance.
Forestier was walking in when Duroy checked him.
“You are passing the pay-box,” said he.
“I never pay,” was the reply, in a tone of importance.
When he approached the check-takers they bowed, and one of them held out his hand. The journalist asked: “Have you a good box?”
“Certainly, Monsieur Forestier.”
He took the ticket held out to him, pushed the padded door with its leather borders, and they found themselves in the auditorium.
Tobacco smoke slightly veiled like a faint mist the stage and the further side of the theater. Rising incessantly in thin white spirals from the cigars and pipes, this light fog ascended to the ceiling, and there, accumulating, formed under the dome above the crowded gallery a cloudy sky.
In the broad corridor leading to the circular promenade a group of women were awaiting new-comers in front of one of the bars, at which sat enthroned three painted and faded vendors of love and liquor.
The tall mirrors behind them reflected their backs and the faces of passers-by.
Forestier pushed his way through the groups, advancing quickly with the air of a man entitled to consideration.
He went up to a box-keeper. “Box seventeen,” said he.
“This way, sir.”
And they were shut up in a little open box draped with red, and holding four chairs of the same color, so near to one another that one could scarcely slip between them. The two friends sat down. To the right, as to the left, following a long curved line, the two ends of which joined the proscenium, a row of similar cribs held people seated in like fashion, with only their heads and chests visible.
On the stage, three young fellows in fleshings, one tall, one of middle size, and one small, were executing feats in turn upon a trapeze.
The tall one first advanced with short, quick steps, smiling and waving his hand as though wafting a kiss.
The muscles of his arms and legs stood out under his tights. He expanded his chest to take off the effect of his too prominent stomach, and his face resembled that of a barber’s block, for a careful parting divided his locks equally on the center of the skull. He gained the trapeze by a graceful bound, and, hanging by the hands, whirled round it like a wheel at full speed, or, with stiff arms and straightened body, held himself out horizontally in space.
Then he jumped down, saluted the audience again with a smile amidst the applause of the stalls, and went and leaned against the scenery, showing off the muscles of his legs at every step.
The second, shorter and more squarely built, advanced in turn, and went through the same performance, which the third also recommenced amidst most marked expressions of approval from the public.
But Duroy scarcely noticed the performance, and, with head averted, kept his eyes on the promenade behind him, full of men and prostitutes.
Said Forestier to him: “Look at the stalls; nothing but middle-class folk with their wives and children, good noodlepates who come to see the show. In the boxes, men about town, some artistes, some girls, good second-raters; and behind us, the strangest mixture in Paris. Who are these men? Watch them. There is something of everything, of every profession, and every caste; but blackguardism predominates. There are clerks of all kinds—bankers’ clerks, government clerks, shopmen, reporters, ponces, officers in plain clothes, swells in evening dress, who have dined out, and have dropped in here on their way from the Opera to the Théatre des Italiens; and then again, too, quite a crowd of suspicious folk who defy analysis. As to the women, only one type, the girl who sups at the American café, the girl at one or two louis who looks out for foreigners at five louis, and lets her regular customers know when she is disengaged. We have known them for the last ten years; we see them every evening all the year round in the same places, except when they are making a hygienic sojourn at Saint Lazare or at Lourcine.”
Duroy no longer heard him. One of these women was leaning against their box and looking at him. She was a stout brunette, her skin whitened with paint, her black eyes lengthened at the corners with pencil and shaded by enormous and artificial eyebrows. Her too exuberant bosom stretched the dark silk of her dress almost to bursting; and her painted lips, red as a fresh wound, gave her an aspect bestial, ardent, unnatural, but which, nevertheless, aroused desire.
She beckoned with her head one of the friends who was passing, a blonde with red hair, and stout, like herself, and said to her, in a voice loud enough to be heard: “There is a pretty fellow; if he would like to have me for ten louis I should not say no.”
Forestier turned and tapped Duroy on the knee, with a smile. “That is meant for you; you are a success, my dear fellow. I congratulate you.”
The ex-sub-officer blushed, and mechanically fingered the two pieces of gold in his waistcoat pocket.
The curtain had dropped, and the orchestra was now playing a waltz.
Duroy said: “Suppose we take a turn round the promenade.”
“Just as you like.”
They left their box, and were at once swept away by the throng of promenaders. Pushed, pressed, squeezed, shaken, they went on, having before their eyes a crowd of hats. The girls, in pairs, passed amidst this crowd of men, traversing it with facility, gliding between elbows, chests, and backs as if quite at home, perfectly at their ease, like fish in water, amidst this masculine flood.
Duroy, charmed, let himself be swept along, drinking in with intoxication the air vitiated by tobacco, the odor of humanity, and the perfumes of the hussies. But Forestier sweated, puffed, and coughed.
“Let us go into the garden,” said he.
And turning to the left, they entered a kind of covered garden, cooled by two large and ugly fountains. Men and women were drinking at zinc tables placed beneath evergreen trees growing in boxes.
“Another bock, eh?” said Forestier.
They sat down and watched the passing throng.
From time to time a woman would stop and ask, with stereotyped smile: “Are you going to stand me anything?”
And as Forestier answered: “A glass of water from the fountain,” she would turn away, muttering: “Go on, you duffer.”
But the stout brunette, who had been leaning, just before, against the box occupied by the two comrades, reappeared, walking proudly arm-in-arm with the stout blonde. They were really a fine pair of women, well matched.
She smiled on perceiving Duroy, as though their eyes had already told secrets, and, taking a chair, sat down quietly in face of him, and making her friend sit down, too, gave the order in a clear voice: “Waiter, two grenadines!”
Forestier, rather surprised, said: “You make yourself at home.”
She replied: “It is your friend that captivates me. He is really a pretty fellow. I believe that I could make a fool of myself for his sake.”
Duroy, intimidated, could find nothing to say. He twisted his curly moustache, smiling in a silly fashion. The waiter brought the drinks, which the women drank off at a draught; then they rose, and the brunette, with a friendly nod of the head, and a tap on the arm with her fan, said to Duroy: “Thanks, dear, you are not very talkative.”
And they went off swaying their trains.
Forestier laughed. “I say, old fellow, you are very successful with the women. You must look after it. It may lead to something.” He was silent for a moment, and then continued in the dreamy tone of men who think aloud: “It is through them, too, that one gets on quickest.”
And as Duroy still smiled without replying, he asked: “Are you going to stop any longer? I have had enough of it. I am going home.”
The other murmured: “Yes, I shall stay a little longer. It is not late.”
Forestier rose. “Well, good-night, then. Till to-morrow. Don’t forget. Seventeen Rue Fontaine, at half-past seven.”
“That is settled. Till to-morrow. Thanks.”
They shook hands, and the journalist walked away.
As soon as he had disappeared Duroy felt himself free, and again he joyfully felt the two pieces of gold in his pocket; then rising, he began to traverse the crowd, which he followed with his eyes.
He soon caught sight of the two women, the blonde and the brunette, who were still making their way, with their proud bearing of beggars, through the throng of men.
He went straight up to them, and when he was quite close he no longer dared to do anything.
The brunette said: “Have you found your tongue again?”
He stammered “By Jove!” without being able to say anything else.
The three stood together, checking the movement, the current of which swept round them.
All at once she asked: “Will you come home with me?”
And he, quivering with desire, answered roughly: “Yes, but I have only a louis in my pocket.”
She smiled indifferently. “It is all the same to me,”‘ and took his arm in token of possession.
As they went out he thought that with the other louis he could easily hire a suit of dress clothes for the next evening.
“Monsieur Forestier, if you please?”
“Third floor, the door on the left,” the concierge had replied, in a voice the amiable tone of which betokened a certain consideration for the tenant, and George Duroy ascended the stairs.
He felt somewhat abashed, awkward, and ill at ease. He was wearing a dress suit for the first time in his life, and was uneasy about the general effect of his toilet. He felt it was altogether defective, from his boots, which were not of patent leather, though neat, for he was naturally smart about his foot-gear, to his shirt, which he had bought that very morning for four franc fifty centimes at the Masgasin du Louvre, and the limp front of which was already rumpled. His everyday shirts were all more or less damaged, so that he had not been able to make use of even the least worn of them.
His trousers, rather too loose, set off his leg badly, seeming to flap about the calf with that creased appearance which second-hand clothes present. The coat alone did not look bad, being by chance almost a perfect fit.
He was slowly ascending the stairs with beating heart and anxious mind, tortured above all by the fear of appearing ridiculous, when suddenly he saw in front of him a gentleman in full dress looking at him. They were so close to one another that Duroy took a step back and then remained stupefied; it was himself, reflected by a tall mirror on the first-floor landing. A thrill of pleasure shot through him to find himself so much more presentable than he had imagined.
Only having a small shaving-glass in his room, he had not been able to see himself all at once, and as he had only an imperfect glimpse of the various items of his improvised toilet, he had mentally exaggerated its imperfections, and harped to himself on the idea of appearing grotesque.
But on suddenly coming upon his reflection in the mirror, he had not even recognized himself; he had taken himself for someone else, for a gentleman whom at the first glance he had thought very well dressed and fashionable looking. And now, looking at himself carefully, he recognized that really the general effect was satisfactory.
He studied himself as actors do when learning their parts. He smiled, held out his hand, made gestures, expressed sentiments of astonishment, pleasure, and approbation, and essayed smiles and glances, with a view of displaying his gallantry towards the ladies, and making them understand that they were admired and desired.
A door opened somewhere. He was afraid of being caught, and hurried upstairs, filled with the fear of having been seen grimacing thus by one of his friend’s guests.
On reaching the second story he noticed another mirror, and slackened his pace to view himself in it as he went by. His bearing seemed to him really graceful. He walked well. And now he was filled with an unbounded confidence in himself. Certainly he must be successful with such an appearance, his wish to succeed, his native resolution, and his independence of mind. He wanted to run, to jump, as he ascended the last flight of stairs. He stopped in front of the third mirror, twirled his moustache as he had a trick of doing, took off his hat to run his fingers through his hair, and muttered half-aloud as he often did: “What a capital notion.” Then raising his hand to the bell handle, he rang.
The door opened almost at once, and he found himself face to face with a man-servant out of livery, serious, clean-shaven, and so perfect in his get-up that Duroy became uneasy again without understanding the reason of his vague emotion, due, perhaps, to an unwitting comparison of the cut of their respective garments. The man-servant, who had patent-leather shoes, asked, as he took the overcoat which Duroy had carried on his arm, to avoid exposing the stains on it: “Whom shall I announce?”
And he announced the name through a door with a looped-back draping leading into a drawing-room.
But Duroy, suddenly losing his assurance, felt himself breathless and paralyzed by terror. He was about to take his first step in the world he had looked forward to and longed for. He advanced, nevertheless. A fair young woman, quite alone, was standing awaiting him in a large room, well lit up and full of plants as a greenhouse.
He stopped short, quite disconcerted. Who was this lady who was smiling at him? Then he remembered that Forestier was married, and the thought that this pretty and elegant blonde must be his friend’s wife completed his alarm.
He stammered: “Madame, I am—”
She held out her hand, saying: “I know, sir; Charles has told me of your meeting last evening, and I am very pleased that he had the idea of asking you to dine with us to-day.”
He blushed up to his ears, not knowing what to say, and felt himself examined from head to foot, reckoned up, and judged.
He longed to excuse himself, to invent some pretext for explaining the deficiencies of his toilet, but he could not think of one, and did not dare touch on this difficult subject.
He sat down on an armchair she pointed out to him, and as he felt the soft and springy velvet-covered seat yield beneath his weight, as he felt himself, as it were, supported and clasped by the padded back and arms, it seemed to him that he was entering upon a new and enchanting life, that he was taking possession of something delightful, that he was becoming somebody, that he was saved, and he looked at Madame Forestier, whose eyes had not quitted him.
She was attired in a dress of pale blue cashmere, which set off the outline of her slender waist and full bust. Her arms and neck issued from a cloud of white lace, with which the bodice and short sleeves were trimmed, and her fair hair, dressed high, left a fringe of tiny curls at the nape of her neck.
Duroy recovered his assurance beneath her glance, which reminded him, without his knowing why, of that of the girl met overnight at the Folies Bergére. She had gray eyes, of a bluish gray, which imparted to them a strange expression; a thin nose, full lips, a rather fleshy chin, and irregular but inviting features, full of archness and charm. It was one of those faces, every trait of which reveals a special grace, and seems to have its meaning—every movement to say or to hide something. After a brief silence she asked: “Have you been long in Paris?”
He replied slowly, recovering his self-possession: “A few months only, Madame. I have a berth in one of the railway companies, but Forestier holds out the hope that I may, thanks to him, enter journalism.”
She smiled more plainly and kindly, and murmured, lowering her voice: “Yes, I know.”
The bell had rung again. The servant announced “Madame de Marelle.”
This was a little brunette, who entered briskly, and seemed to be outlined—modeled, as it were—from head to foot in a dark dress made quite plainly. A red rose placed in her black hair caught the eye at once, and seemed to stamp her physiognomy, accentuate her character, and strike the sharp and lively note needed.
A little girl in short frocks followed her.
Madame Forestier darted forward, exclaiming: “Good evening, Clotilde.”
“Good evening, Madeleine.” They kissed one another, and then the child offered her forehead, with the assurance of a grown-up person, saying: “Good evening, cousin.”
Madame Forestier kissed her, and then introduced them, saying: “Monsieur George Duroy, an old friend of Charles; Madame de Marelle, my friend, and in some degree my relation.” She added: “You know we have no ceremonious affectation here. You quite understand, eh?”
The young man bowed.
The door opened again, and a short, stout gentleman appeared, having on his arm a tall, handsome woman, much younger than himself, and of distinguished appearance and grave bearing. They were Monsieur Walter, a Jew from the South of France, deputy, financier, capitalist, and manager of the Vie Francaise, and his wife, the daughter of Monsieur Basile-Ravalau, the banker.
Then came, one immediately after the other, Jacques Rival, very elegantly got up, and Norbert de Varenne, whose coat collar shone somewhat from the friction of the long locks falling on his shoulders and scattering over them a few specks of white scurf. His badly-tied cravat looked as if it had already done duty. He advanced with the air and graces of an old beau, and taking Madame Forestier’s hand, printed a kiss on her wrist. As he bent forward his long hair spread like water over her bare arm.
Forestier entered in his turn, offering excuses for being late. He had been detained at the office of the paper by the Morel affair. Monsieur Morel, a Radical deputy, had just addressed a question to the Ministry respecting a vote of credit for the colonization of Algeria.
The servant announced: “Dinner is served, Madame,” and they passed into the dining-room.
Duroy found himself seated between Madame de Marelle and her daughter. He again felt ill at ease, being afraid of making some mistake in the conventional handling of forks, spoons, and glasses. There were four of these, one of a faint blue tint. What could be meant to be drunk out of that?
Nothing was said while the soup was being consumed, and then Norbert de Varenne asked: “Have you read the Gauthier case? What a funny business it is.”
After a discussion on this case of adultery, complicated with blackmailing, followed. They did not speak of it as the events recorded in newspapers are spoken of in private families, but as a disease is spoken of among doctors, or vegetables among market gardeners. They were neither shocked nor astonished at the facts, but sought out their hidden and secret motives with professional curiosity, and an utter indifference for the crime itself. They sought to clearly explain the origin of certain acts, to determine all the cerebral phenomena which had given birth to the drama, the scientific result due to an especial condition of mind. The women, too, were interested in this investigation. And other recent events were examined, commented upon, turned so as to show every side of them, and weighed correctly, with the practical glance, and from the especial standpoint of dealers in news, and vendors of the drama of life at so much a line, just as articles destined for sale are examined, turned over, and weighed by tradesmen.
Then it was a question of a duel, and Jacques Rival spoke. This was his business; no one else could handle it.
Duroy dared not put in a word. He glanced from time to time at his neighbor, whose full bosom captivated him. A diamond, suspended by a thread of gold, dangled from her ear like a drop of water that had rolled down it. From time to time she made an observation which always brought a smile to her hearers’ lips. She had a quaint, pleasant wit, that of an experienced tomboy who views things with indifference and judges them with frivolous and benevolent skepticism.
Duroy sought in vain for some compliment to pay her, and, not finding one, occupied himself with her daughter, filling her glass, holding her plate, and helping her. The child, graver than her mother, thanked him in a serious tone and with a slight bow, saying: “You are very good, sir,” and listened to her elders with an air of reflection.
The dinner was very good, and everyone was enraptured. Monsieur Walter ate like an ogre, hardly spoke, and glanced obliquely under his glasses at the dishes offered to him. Norbert de Varenne kept him company, and from time to time let drops of gravy fall on his shirt front. Forestier, silent and serious, watched everything, exchanging glances of intelligence with his wife, like confederates engaged together on a difficult task which is going on swimmingly.
Faces grew red, and voices rose, as from time to time the man-servant murmured in the guests’ ears: “Corton or Chateau-Laroze.”
Duroy had found the Corton to his liking, and let his glass be filled every time. A delicious liveliness stole over him, a warm cheerfulness, that mounted from the stomach to the head, flowed through his limbs and penetrated him throughout. He felt himself wrapped in perfect comfort of life and thought, body and soul.
A longing to speak assailed him, to bring himself into notice, to be appreciated like these men, whose slightest words were relished.
But the conversation, which had been going on unchecked, linking ideas one to another, jumping from one topic to another at a chance word, a mere trifle, and skimming over a thousand matters, turned again on the great question put by Monsieur Morel in the Chamber respecting the colonization of Algeria.
Monsieur Walter, between two courses, made a few jests, for his wit was skeptical and broad. Forestier recited his next day’s leader. Jacques Rival insisted on a military government with land grants to all officers after thirty years of colonial service.
“By this plan,” he said, “you will create an energetic class of colonists, who will have already learned to love and understand the country, and will be acquainted with its language, and with all those grave local questions against which new-comers invariably run their heads.”
Norbert de Varenne interrupted him with: “Yes; they will be acquainted with everything except agriculture. They will speak Arabic, but they will be ignorant how beet-root is planted out and wheat sown. They will be good at fencing, but very shaky as regards manures. On the contrary, this new land should be thrown entirely open to everyone. Intelligent men will achieve a position there; the others will go under. It is the social law.”
A brief silence followed, and the listeners smiled at one another.
George Duroy opened his mouth, and said, feeling as much surprised at the sound of his own voice as if he had never heard himself speak: “What is most lacking there is good land. The really fertile estates cost as much as in France, and are bought up as investments by rich Parisians. The real colonists, the poor fellows who leave home for lack of bread, are forced into the desert, where nothing will grow for want of water.”
Everyone looked at him, and he felt himself blushing.
Monsieur Walter asked: “Do you know Algeria, sir?”
George replied: “Yes, sir; I was there nearly two years and a half, and I was quartered in all three provinces.”
Suddenly unmindful of the Morel question, Norbert de Varenne interrogated him respecting a detail of manners and customs of which he had been informed by an officer. It was with respect to the Mzab, that strange little Arab republic sprung up in the midst of the Sahara, in the driest part of that burning region.
Duroy had twice visited the Mzab, and he narrated some of the customs of this singular country, where drops of water are valued as gold; where every inhabitant is bound to discharge all public duties; and where commercial honesty is carried further than among civilized nations.
He spoke with a certain raciness excited by the wine and the desire to please, and told regimental yarns, incidents of Arab life and military adventure. He even hit on some telling phrases to depict these bare and yellow lands, eternally laid waste by the devouring fire of the sun.
All the women had their eyes turned upon him, and Madame Walter said, in her deliberate tones: “You could make a charming series of articles out of your recollections.”
Then Walter looked at the young fellow over the glasses of his spectacles, as was his custom when he wanted to see anyone’s face distinctly. He looked at the dishes underneath them.
Forestier seized the opportunity. “My dear sir, I had already spoken to you about Monsieur George Duroy, asking you to let me have him for my assistant in gleaning political topics. Since Marambot left us, I have no one to send in quest of urgent and confidential information, and the paper suffers from it.”
Daddy Walter became serious, and pushed his spectacles upon his forehead, in order to look Duroy well in the face. Then he said: “It is true that Monsieur Duroy has evidently an original turn of thought. If he will come and have a chat with us to-morrow at three o’clock, we will settle the matter.” Then, after a short silence, turning right round towards George, he added: “But write us a little fancy series of articles on Algeria at once. Relate your experiences, and mix up the colonization question with them as you did just now. They are facts, genuine facts, and I am sure they will greatly please our readers. But be quick. I must have the first article to-morrow or the day after, while the subject is being discussed in the Chamber, in order to catch the public.”
Madame Walter added, with that serious grace which characterized everything she did, and which lent an air of favor to her words: “And you have a charming title, ‘Recollections of a Chasseur d’Afrique.’ Is it not so, Monsieur Norbert?”
The old poet, who had worn renown late in life, feared and hated new-comers. He replied dryly: “Yes, excellent, provided that the keynote be followed, for that is the great difficulty; the exact note, what in music is called the pitch.”
Madame Forestier cast on Duroy a smiling and protective glance, the glance of a connoisseur, which seemed to say: “Yes, you will get on.” Madame de Marelle had turned towards him several times, and the diamond in her ear quivered incessantly as though the drop of water was about to fall.
The little girl remained quiet and serious, her head bent over her plate.
But the servant passed round the table, filling the blue glasses with Johannisberg, and Forestier proposed a toast, drinking with a bow to Monsieur Walter: “Prosperity to the Vie Francaise.”
Everyone bowed towards the proprietor, who smiled, and Duroy, intoxicated with success, emptied his glass at a draught. He would have emptied a whole barrel after the same fashion; it seemed to him that he could have eaten a bullock or strangled a lion. He felt a superhuman strength in his limbs, unconquerable resolution and unbounded hope in his mind. He was now at home among these people; he had just taken his position, won his place. His glance rested on their faces with a new-born assurance, and he ventured for the first time to address his neighbor. “You have the prettiest earrings I have ever seen, Madame.”
She turned towards him with a smile. “It was an idea of my own to have the diamonds hung like that, just at the end of a thread. They really look like dew-drops, do they not?”
He murmured, ashamed of his own daring, and afraid of making a fool of himself:
“It is charming; but the ear, too, helps to set it off.”
She thanked him with a look, one of those woman’s looks that go straight to the heart. And as he turned his head he again met Madame Forestier’s eye, always kindly, but now he thought sparkling with a livelier mirth, an archness, an encouragement.
All the men were now talking at once with gesticulations and raised voices. They were discussing the great project of the metropolitan railway. The subject was not exhausted till dessert was finished, everyone having a deal to say about the slowness of the methods of communication in Paris, the inconvenience of the tramway, the delays of omnibus traveling, and the rudeness of cabmen.
Then they left the dining-room to take coffee. Duroy, in jest, offered his arm to the little girl. She gravely thanked him, and rose on tiptoe in order to rest her hand on it.
On returning to the drawing-room he again experienced the sensation of entering a greenhouse. In each of the four corners of the room tall palms unfolded their elegantly shaped leaves, rising to the ceiling, and there spreading fountain-wise.
On each side of the fireplace were india-rubber plants like round columns, with their dark green leaves tapering one above the other; and on the piano two unknown shrubs covered with flowers, those of one all crimson and those of the other all white, had the appearance of artificial plants, looking too beautiful to be real.
The air was cool, and laden with a soft, vague perfume that could scarcely be defined. The young fellow, now more himself, considered the room more attentively. It was not large; nothing attracted attention with the exception of the shrubs, no bright color struck one, but one felt at one’s ease in it; one felt soothed and refreshed, and, as it were, caressed by one’s surroundings. The walls were covered with an old-fashioned stuff of faded violet, spotted with little flowers in yellow silk about the size of flies. Hangings of grayish-blue cloth, embroidered here and there with crimson poppies, draped the doorways, and the chairs of all shapes and sizes, scattered about the room, lounging chairs, easy chairs, ottomans, and stools, were upholstered in Louise Seize silk or Utrecht velvet, with a crimson pattern on a cream-colored ground.
“Do you take coffee, Monsieur Duroy?” and Madame Forestier held out a cup towards him with that smile which never left her lips.
“Thank you, Madame.” He took the cup, and as he bent forward to take a lump of sugar from the sugar-basin carried by the little girl, Madame Forestier said to him in a low voice: “Pay attention to Madame Walter.”
Then she drew back before he had time to answer a word.
He first drank off his coffee, which he was afraid of dropping onto the carpet; then, his mind more at ease, he sought for some excuse to approach the wife of his new governor, and begin a conversation. All at once he noticed that she was holding an empty cup in her hand, and as she was at some distance from a table, did not know where to put it. He darted forward with, “Allow me, Madame?”
“Thank you, sir.”
He took away the cup and then returned.
“If you knew, Madame,” he began, “the happy hours the Vie Francaise helped me to pass when I was away in the desert. It is really the only paper that is readable out of France, for it is more literary, wittier, and less monotonous than the others. There is something of everything in it.”
She smiled with amiable indifference, and answered, seriously:
“Monsieur Walter has had a great deal of trouble to create a type of newspaper supplying the want of the day.”
And they began to chat. He had an easy flow of commonplace conversation, a charm in his voice and look, and an irresistible seductiveness about his moustache. It curled coquettishly about his lips, reddish brown, with a paler tint about the ends. They chatted about Paris, its suburbs, the banks of the Seine, watering places, summer amusements, all the current topics on which one can prate to infinity without wearying oneself.
Then as Monsieur Norbert de Varenne approached with a liqueur glass in his hand, Duroy discreetly withdrew.
Madame de Marelle, who had been speaking with Madame Forestier, summoned him.
“Well, sir,” she said, abruptly, “so you want to try your hand at journalism?”
He spoke vaguely of his prospects, and there recommenced with her the conversation he had just had with Madame Walter, but as he was now a better master of his subject, he showed his superiority in it, repeating as his own the things he had just heard. And he continually looked his companion in the eyes, as though to give deep meaning to what he was saying.
She, in her turn, related anecdotes with the easy flow of spirits of a woman who knows she is witty, and is always seeking to appear so, and becoming familiar, she laid her hand from time to time on his arm, and lowered her voice to make trifling remarks which thus assumed a character of intimacy. He was inwardly excited by her contact. He would have liked to have shown his devotion for her on the spot, to have defended her, shown her what he was worth, and his delay in his replies to her showed the preoccupation of his mind.
But suddenly, without any reason, Madame de Marelle called, “Laurine!” and the little girl came.
“Sit down here, child; you will catch cold near the window.”
Duroy was seized with a wild longing to kiss the child. It was as though some part of the kiss would reach the mother.
He asked in a gallant, and at the same time fatherly, tone: “Will you allow me to kiss you, Mademoiselle?”
The child looked up at him in surprise.
“Answer, my dear,” said Madame de Marelle, laughingly.
“Yes, sir, this time; but it will not do always.”
Duroy, sitting down, lifted Laurine onto his knees and brushed the fine curly hair above her forehead with his lips.
Her mother was surprised. “What! she has not run away; it is astounding. Usually she will only let ladies kiss her. You are irresistible, Monsieur Duroy.”
He blushed without answering, and gently jogged the little girl on his knee.
Madame Forestier drew near, and exclaimed, with astonishment: “What, Laurine tamed! What a miracle!”
Jacques Rival also came up, cigar in mouth, and Duroy rose to take leave, afraid of spoiling, by some unlucky remark, the work done, his task of conquest begun.
He bowed, softly pressed the little outstretched hands of the women, and then heartily shook those of the men. He noted that the hand of Jacques Rival, warm and dry, answered cordially to his grip; that of Norbert de Varenne, damp and cold, slipped through his fingers; that of Daddy Walter, cold and flabby, was without expression or energy; and that of Forestier was plump and moist. His friend said to him in a low tone, “To-morrow, at three o’clock; do not forget.”
“Oh! no; don’t be afraid of that.”
When he found himself once more on the stairs he felt a longing to run down them, so great was his joy, and he darted forward, going down two steps at a time, but suddenly he caught sight in a large mirror on the second-floor landing of a gentleman in a hurry, who was advancing briskly to meet him, and he stopped short, ashamed, as if he had been caught tripping. Then he looked at himself in the glass for some time, astonished at being really such a handsome fellow, smiled complacently, and taking leave of his reflection, bowed low to it as one bows to a personage of importance.