Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and other profitable tales/The Intaglio
|←Adrienne Buquet||Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and other profitable tales by , translated by Winifred Stephens
|La Signora Chiara→|
HAD come to him at noon by invitation. We lunched in the dining-room long as a church nave, a veritable treasure-house filled with the ancient gold and silver work he has collected. I found him not exactly sad but meditative. His conversation now and again suggested the light and graceful turn of his wit. An occasional word revealed the rare delicacy of his artistic tastes and his passion for sport, by no means allayed by a terrible fall from his horse which had split his head open. But constantly the flow of his ideas was checked as if they had been barred by some obstacle.
From this conversation, which was somewhat fatiguing to follow, all I retain is that he had just sent a couple of white peacocks to his chateau of Raray and that without any special reason he had for three weeks been neglecting his friends, forsaking even the most intimate, Monsieur and Madame N.
It was plain enough to me that he had not asked me to come and listen to confidences such as those. While we were taking our coffee, I asked him what it was he had to tell me. He looked at me rather surprised:
"Had I anything to tell you?"
"Dame! You wrote: 'Come and lunch tomorrow. I want to talk to you.'"
As he was silent I took the letter from my pocket and showed it to him. The address was in his attractive running hand, somewhat irregular. On the envelope there was a seal in violet wax.
He passed his hand over his forehead.
"I remember. Be so kind as to go to Féral's, he will show you a study by Romney; a young woman; golden hair the reflection of which gilds her cheeks and forehead. . . . Pupils dark blue, giving a bluish tinge to the whole eye. . . . The warm freshness of her complexion. . . . It is delicious. And an arm like gold-beater's skin. However, look at it and see if. . . ."
He paused. And with his hand on the door handle:
"Wait for me. I will put on my coat and we will go out together.'"
Left alone in the dining-room, I went to the window, and, more attentively than before, examined the seal of violet wax. It bore the imprint of an antique intaglio, representing a satyr raising the veil of a nymph who was asleep at the foot of a pillar, under a laurel-tree. During the best Roman period the subject was a favourite one with painters and with engravers of precious stones. This representation appeared to me excellent. The purity of the style, the perfect feeling for form, the harmonious grouping, converted this scene no longer than one's finger-nail, into a composition vast and imposing.
I was under the spell when my friend appeared through the half-open door.
"Come, let's be off," he said.
He had his hat on and seemed to be in a hurry to go out.
I congratulated him on his seal.
"I was not aware that you possessed this beautiful gem."
He replied that he had not had it long, only about six weeks. It was a find. He took it from the finger on which he wore it set in a ring, and put it in my hand.
It is well known that stones engraved in this fine classic style are generally cornelians. I was somewhat surprised therefore to see a dull gem, of a dark violet. "What!" I cried, "an amethyst."
"Yes, a melancholy stone and unlucky. Do you think it is a genuine antique?"
He called for a magnifying glass. And now I was better able to admire the carving of the intaglio. It was obviously a masterpiece of Greek glyptography dating from the early Empire. Among all the precious stones in the Museum at Naples I had never seen anything more beautiful. With the glass it was possible to distinguish on the pillar an emblem often found on monuments dedicated to some subject of the Bacchic cycle. I pointed it out to him.
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. The gem was in an open setting. It occurred to me to examine the reverse; and I was very surprised to find thereon an inscription of a clumsy crudity dating evidently from a period much less remote than that of the intaglio. In a measure these signs resembled the engraving on those Abraxas stones so familiar to antiquaries. In spite of my inexperience I believed them to be magic signs. That was also my friend's opinion.
"It is thought," he said, "to be a cabalistic formula, imprecations taken from a Greek poet …"
"I am not very well up in them."
Through the glass I could make out distinctly a group of four letters:
K H P H
"That doesn't spell a name," said my friend.
"I pointed out to him that in Greek it is the equivalent of:
K E R E
And I gave him back the stone. He looked at it long in a dazed manner and then put it on to his finger.
"Come," he said briskly. "Come."
"Where are you going?"
"Towards the Madeleine. And you?"
"I? Where am I going? Parbleu! I am going to Gaulot's to see a horse which he refuses to buy until I have looked at it. For, as you know, I am an authority on horses and something of a veterinary surgeon to boot. I may describe myself also as a furniture broker, an upholsterer, an architect, a gardener, and if need be a stock-jobber. Ah! my friend if only I had the energy I would cut out all the Jews."
We went out into the faubourg; and, as we walked my friend assumed a gait very different from his habitual nonchalance. His pace soon became so rapid that I had difficulty in keeping up with him. In front of us was a woman rather well dressed. He called my attention to her.
"Her back is round, and she is heavy of figure. But look at her ankle. I am sure the leg is charming. Have you not noticed that the build of horses, of women, and of all fine animals is very much the same? Coarse and large in the fleshy parts, their limbs become thin towards the joints, where they display the fineness of the bones. Look at that woman; above her waist she is not worth a glance. But her limbs! How free, how powerful! How well balanced the movement of her walk! And how fine the leg just above the ankle! And the thigh I am sure is nervously supple and really beautiful."
Then he added with that acquired wisdom which he was ever ready to communicate:
"You must not ask everything from one woman; you must take beauty where you find it. It is deucedly rare, is beauty!"
Whereupon, through a mysterious association of ideas, he raised his left hand and looked at his intaglio. I said to him:
"Then have you abandoned your little armorial tree and taken as your crest that marvellous Bacchante?"
"Ah! Yes, the beech, the fau of Du Fau. In Poitou, under Louis XVI, my great grandfather was what was then called a nobleman, that is he was an ennobled commoner. Later he joined a revolutionary club at Poitiers and acquired national property, which procures for me to-day, in a society of Jews and Americans, the friendship of princes and the rank of an aristocrat. Why did I forsake the fau of the Du Fau? Why? It was worth almost as much as the chêne of Duchesne de la Sicotière. And I have exchanged it for a bacchante, a barren laurel and an emblematical stone."
Just as with ironical emphasis he was uttering these words, we reached the house of his friend Gaulot; but Du Fau passed the two copper knockers representing Neptune, gleaming on the door like bath taps.
"I thought you were so eager to go and see Gaulot?"
He appeared not to hear me and quickened his step. He continued breathlessly as far as the Rue Matignon, down which he turned. Then suddenly he stopped in front of a tall, melancholy, five-storied house. In silence he looked anxiously at the flat stucco façade with its numerous windows.
"Are you going to be there long?" I asked him. "Do you know that Madame Cère lives in this house?"
I knew that name would annoy him. Madame Cère was a woman whose artificial beauty, well-known venality and obvious stupidity he had always detested. Old and of neglected appearance she was suspected of being a shop-lifter and appropriating lace. But in a weak almost plaintive voice, he replied:
"Do you think so?"
"I am sure of it. Look at those windows on the second story and those hideous curtains with red leopards."
He shook his head.
"But certainly Madame Cère lives there. At this very moment she is probably behind one of those red leopards."
He seemed as if he would like to call on her. I expressed my surprise.
"Once you could not tolerate her. That was when every one considered her beautiful and ornamental; when she inspired fatal passion and tragic love you used to say: 'If it were only for the coarseness of her skin the woman would fill me with insurmountable disgust. But besides she is flat-chested and big-jointed.' Now, when all her charms have faded, have you succeeded in discovering one of those little points of beauty, with which as you were saying just now, we ought to be contented? What do you make of the fineness of her ankle and the nobility of her heart? A tall gawky woman without bust or hips, who, as she entered a salon, cast a sweeping gaze round the room, and by this simple trick attracted a crowd of those vain and imbecile creatures who ruin themselves for women devoid of natural charms."
I paused, rather ashamed of having spoken thus of a woman. But this woman had given such abundant proof of her revolting malice, that I could not resist the feeling of repugnance she inspired. In truth I should not have expressed myself thus, had I not been convinced of her falseness and her evil disposition. Moreover I had the satisfaction of perceiving that Du Fau had not heard a single word of what I had said.
He began to talk as if to himself.
"Whether I call on her or not it is all the same. For six weeks I have visited nowhere without meeting her. Houses, which I have not entered for many years, I now return to, why I know not! Queer houses too!"
Unable to comprehend the lure which drew him, I left him there, standing in front of the open door. That Du Fau, who had loathed Madame Cère when she was beautiful, that he, who had repulsed her advances when she was in her prime, should seek her now that she was old and a victim of drugs, must result from a deterioration which I had not expected in my friend. Such an uncommon vagary I should have declared impossible if in the obscure domain of sensual pathology one could ever be sure of anything.
A month later, I left Paris without an opportunity of again meeting Paul Du Fau. After spending a few days in Brittany, I went to stay with my cousin B—— at Trouville. Her children were there with her. The first week of my visit to the Chalet des Alcyons was spent in giving lessons in water-colours to my nieces, in teaching my nephews to fence and in hearing my cousin play Wagner.
On Sunday morning I went with the family as far as the church, and while they were at mass I wandered about the town. Walking along the beach road lined with toy stalls and curiosity shops, I saw in front of me Madame Cère. Languid, solitary and forlorn, she was going down to the bathing-huts. The dragging of her feet suggested that her shoes were down at heel. Her frock, torn and crumpled, seemed to be dropping off her body. For one moment she looked round. Her hollow vacant eyes and her hanging lip positively alarmed me. While the women cast sidelong glances at her, she went on her way dismal and indifferent.
Obviously the poor woman was poisoned with morphia. At the end of the street she stopped before the shop window of Madame Guillot, and, with her long thin hand, began to feel the laces. Her eager glance at that moment reminded me of the tattle that circulated about her in the big shops. The stout Madame Guillot, who was showing out some customers, appeared at the door. And Madame Cère, putting down the lace, resumed her dreary walk to the beach.
"You haven't bought anything for a long time! What a bad customer you are!" cried Madame Guillot as she saw me. Come, look at some buckles and fans which the young ladies, your nieces, thought very pretty. How good looking they grow, the young ladies!"
Then she looked at the disappearing form of Madame Cère and shook her head as if to say:
"Isn't it unfortunate? Eh?"
I had to buy some paste buckles for my nieces. While my purchase was being wrapped up, through the shop window I saw Du Fau going down to the beach. He was walking very quickly with an anxious air. In the manner of agitated persons, he was biting his nails, which enabled me to observe that he wore the amethyst on his finger.
I was surprised to see him, especially as he said he was going to Dinard. He has a chalet there and harriers. When I fetched my cousin from church, I asked her whether she knew that Du Fau was at Trouville. She nodded. Then, slightly embarrassed:
"Our poor friend is quite absurd. He is tied to that woman. And really. . . ."
She paused and then resumed:
"It is he who pursues her. I can't understand it."
Du Fau was indeed pursuing her. In a few days I had certain proof of it. I saw him constantly dogging the steps of Madame Cère and of Monsieur Cère, whom no one knows whether to regard as a stupid or an obliging husband. His dulness saves him and makes it possible to give him the benefit of the doubt. Once this woman was blindly set on attracting Du Fau, who is a useful friend in households ostentatious but not wealthy. But Du Fau made no attempt to conceal his dislike for her. He used to say in her presence: "An artificially beautiful woman is more detestable than an ugly woman. The latter may offer pleasant surprises. The other is naught but a fruit filled with ashes." On that occasion the strength of Du Fau's feeling imparted to its expression a biblical elevation of style. Now Madame Cère ignored him. Grown indifferent to men, she now cared only for her De Pravaz syringe and her friend, the Countess V——. These two women were inseparable; and the innocence of their friendship was thought to be rendered possible by the circumstance that they were both moribund. Nevertheless Du Fau was always with them on their excursions. One day I saw him carrying Monsieur Cère's heavy field-glasses slung over his shoulders. He persuaded Madame Cère to go out in a boat with him, and the whole beach fixed its eyes upon them with an unholy glee.
Naturally enough while he was in such an ignominious position I had little desire for his society. And as he was perpetually in a kind of somnambulistic state, I quitted Trouville without having exchanged a dozen words with my unhappy friend, whom I left a prey to the Cères and Countess V——.
One evening in Paris I met him again. It was at the house of his friends and neighbours, the N——'s, who are charming hosts. In the arrangement of their beautiful house in the Avenue Kléber, I recognized the excellent taste of Madame N—— united to that of Du Fau, and blending very harmoniously together. There were not many present, only a few friends. As in the past, Paul Du Fau displayed that turn of wit peculiar to him, that refined delicacy touched with a flavour of the most picturesque brutality. Madame N—— is intelligent and the conversation in her salon is quite good. Nevertheless when I first entered the talk was extremely commonplace. A magistrate, Monsieur le Conseiller Nicolas, was relating at length that hackneyed tale of the sentry box, wherein every sentinel in turn committed suicide, and which had to be pulled down in order to put a stop to this novel epidemic. After which Madame N—— asked me if I believed in talismans. Monsieur le Conseiller Nicolas relieved my embarrassment by saying that I, being an unbeliever, was bound to be superstitious.
"You are quite right," replied Madame N——. "He believes neither in God nor the devil. And he adores stories of the other world."
I looked at this charming woman while she was speaking; and I admired the unobtrusive grace her cheeks, her neck and her shoulders. Her whole person gives one the idea of something rare and precious. I do not know what Du Fau thinks of Madame N——'s foot. To me it is beautiful.
Paul Du Fau came and shook hands with me. I noticed that he was no longer wearing his ring.
"What have you done with your amethyst?"
"I have lost it."
"What! An intaglio more beautiful than any in Rome and Naples! You have lost it?"
Without giving him time to reply, N——, who is always at his side, exclaimed:
"Yes, it is a curious story. He has lost his amethyst."
N—— is an excellent fellow, very self confident, a trifle diffuse, and of a simplicity which sometimes provokes a smile. Noisily he called to his wife:
"Marthe, my love, here is some one who has not yet heard that Du Fau has lost his amethyst."
And turning to me:
"Why, it is quite a story. Would you believe it? Our friend had absolutely forsaken us. I used to say to my wife: 'What have you done to Du Fan?' She would reply: 'What have I done? Why nothing, my love.' It was incomprehensible. But our astonishment doubled when we heard that he was always with that poor Madame Cère."
Madame N—— interrupted her husband: "What has that got to do with it?"
But N—— insisted:
"Excuse me, my love! But I must mention it in order to explain the history of the amethyst. Well, this summer our friend Du Fau refused to come with us to the country as he had been in the habit of doing. My wife and I had given him a very hearty invitation. But he remained at Trouville, with his cousin de Maureil, in very dull society."
Madame N—— protested.
"It is true," repeated N——, "very dull society. He spent his time going out in a boat with Madame Cère."
Du Fau calmly observed that there was not one word of truth in what N—— was saying. The latter putting his hand on his friend's shoulder said:
"I defy you to contradict me."
And he finished his story.
"Day and night Du Fau went out with Madame Cère, or with her ghost, for it is said that Madame Cère is nothing but the ghost of her former self. Cère stayed on the beach with his field-glasses. During one of these excursions Du Fau lost his amethyst. After this mischance he declined to stay a day longer at Trouville. He left the place without bidding anyone farewell, took train and came to us, at Les Eyzies, where we had given up expecting him. It was two o'clock in the morning. 'Here I am,' he said calmly. There's eccentricity for you!"
"And the amethyst?" I asked.
"It is true," replied Du Fau, "that it fell into the sea. It lies buried in the sand. At least no fisherman has in the traditional manner brought it to land in the belly of a fish."
A few days later, I paid one of my customary visits to Hendel in the Rue de Chateaudun. And I inquired whether he had not some curiosity with which to tempt me. He knows that I am so old fashioned as to collect ancient bronzes and marbles. Silently he opened a glass case, reserved for amateurs, and took out a little Egyptian scribe in pietra dura, of primitive workmanship, a veritable treasure! When I heard its price, I myself put it back, not without a longing glance. Then in the case I perceived the imprint in wax of the intaglio I had so much admired at Du Fau's. I recognized the nymph, the pillar, the laurel. It was beyond the possibility of a doubt.
"Did you ever have the gem?" I asked Hendel.
"Yes, I sold it last year."
"A fine gem! Where did you get it?"
"It came from the collection of Mark Delion, the financier, who five years ago committed suicide on account of a society lady.... Madame... perhaps you know her... Madame Cère.
- Stones so called because they bore the mystic words Abraxas, Abrasax, known also as Basilidian stones because they were the symbol of the Basilidians, a gnostic sect.
- A morphia syringe