Bel Ami/Chapter II
"Where does M. Forestier live?"
"Third floor on the left," said the porter pleasantly, on learning Duroy's destination.
Georges ascended the staircase. He was somewhat embarrassed and ill-at-ease. He had on a new suit but he was uncomfortable. He felt that it was defective; his boots were not glossy, he had bought his shirt that same evening at the Louvre for four francs fifty, his trousers were too wide and betrayed their cheapness in their fit, or rather, misfit, and his coat was too tight.
Slowly he ascended the stairs, his heart beating, his mind anxious. Suddenly before him stood a well-dressed gentleman staring at him. The person resembled Duroy so close that the latter retreated, then stopped, and saw that it was his own image reflected in a pier-glass! Not having anything but a small mirror at home, he had not been able to see himself entirely, and had exaggerated the imperfections of his toilette. When he saw his reflection in the glass, he did not even recognize himself; he took himself for some one else, for a man-of-the-world, and was really satisfied with his general appearance. Smiling to himself, Duroy extended his hand and expressed his astonishment, pleasure, and approbation. A door opened on the staircase, He was afraid of being surprised and began to ascend more rapidly, fearing that he might have been seen posing there by some of his friend's invited guests.
On reaching the second floor, he saw another mirror, and once more slackened his pace to look at himself. He likewise paused before the third glass, twirled his mustache, took off his hat to arrange his hair, and murmured half aloud, a habit of his: "Hall mirrors are most convenient."
Then he rang the bell. The door opened almost immediately, and before him stood a servant in a black coat, with a grave, shaven face, so perfect in his appearance that Duroy again became confused as he compared the cut of their garments.
The lackey asked:
"Whom shall I announce, Monsieur?" He raised a portiere and pronounced the name.
Duroy lost his self-possession upon being ushered into a world as yet strange to him. However, he advanced. A young, fair woman received him alone in a large, well-lighted room. He paused, disconcerted. Who was that smiling lady? He remembered that Forestier was married, and the thought that the handsome blonde was his friend's wife rendered him awkward and ill-at-ease. He stammered out:
"Madame, I am--"
She held out her hand. "I know, Monsieur--Charles told me of your meeting last night, and I am very glad that he asked you to dine with us to-day."
Duroy blushed to the roots of his hair, not knowing how to reply; he felt that he was being inspected from his head to his feet. He half thought of excusing himself, of inventing an explanation of the carelessness of his toilette, but he did not know how to touch upon that delicate subject.
He seated himself upon a chair she pointed out to him, and as he sank into its luxurious depths, it seemed to him that he was entering a new and charming life, that he would make his mark in the world, that he was saved. He glanced at Mme. Forestier. She wore a gown of pale blue cashmere which clung gracefully to her supple form and rounded outlines; her arms and throat rose in, lily-white purity from the mass of lace which ornamented the corsage and short sleeves. Her hair was dressed high and curled on the nape of her neck.
Duroy grew more at his ease under her glance, which recalled to him, he knew not why, that of the girl he had met the preceding evening at the Folies-Bergeres. Mme. Forestier had gray eyes, a small nose, full lips, and a rather heavy chin, an irregular, attractive face, full of gentleness and yet of malice.
After a short silence, she asked: "Have you been in Paris a long time?"
Gradually regaining his self-possession, he replied: "a few months, Madame. I am in the railroad employ, but my friend Forestier has encouraged me to hope that, thanks to him, I can enter into journalism."
She smiled kindly and murmured in a low voice: "I know."
The bell rang again and the servant announced: "Mme. de Marelle." She was a dainty brunette, attired in a simple, dark robe; a red rose in her black tresses seemed to accentuate her special character, and a young girl, or rather a child, for such she was, followed her.
Mme. Forestier said: "Good evening, Clotilde."
"Good evening, Madeleine."
They embraced each other, then the child offered her forehead with the assurance of an adult, saying:
"Good evening, cousin."
Mme. Forestier kissed her, and then made the introductions:
"M. Georges Duroy, an old friend of Charles. Mme. de Marelle, my friend, a relative in fact." She added: "Here, you know, we do not stand on ceremony."
Duroy bowed. The door opened again and a short man entered, upon his arm a tall, handsome woman, taller than he and much younger, with distinguished manners and a dignified carriage. It was M. Walter, deputy, financier, a moneyed man, and a man of business, manager of "La Vie Francaise," with his wife, nee Basile Ravalade, daughter of the banker of that name.
Then came Jacques Rival, very elegant, followed by Norbert de Varenne. The latter advanced with the grace of the old school and taking Mme. Forestier's hand kissed it; his long hair falling upon his hostess's bare arm as he did so.
Forestier now entered, apologizing for being late; he had been detained.
The servant announced dinner, and they entered the dining-room. Duroy was placed between Mme. de Marelle and her daughter. He was again rendered uncomfortable for fear of committing some error in the conventional management of his fork, his spoon, or his glasses, of which he had four. Nothing was said during the soup; then Norbert de Varenne asked a general question: "Have you read the Gauthier case? How droll it was!"
Then followed a discussion of the subject in which the ladies joined. Then a duel was mentioned and Jacques Rival led the conversation; that was his province. Duroy did not venture a remark, but occasionally glanced at his neighbor. A diamond upon a slight, golden thread depended from her ear; from time to time she uttered a remark which evoked a smile upon his lips. Duroy sought vainly for some compliment to pay her; he busied himself with her daughter, filled her glass, waited upon her, and the child, more dignified than her mother, thanked him gravely saying, "You are very kind, Monsieur," while she listened to the conversation with a reflective air. The dinner was excellent and everyone was delighted with it.
The conversation returned to the colonization of Algeria. M. Walter uttered several jocose remarks; Forestier alluded to the article he had prepared for the morrow; Jacques Rival declared himself in favor of a military government with grants of land to all the officers after thirty years of colonial service.
"In that way," said he, "you can establish a strong colony, familiar with and liking the country, knowing its language and able to cope with all those local yet grave questions which invariably confront newcomers."
Norbert de Varenne interrupted: "Yes, they would know everything, except agriculture. They would speak Arabic, but they would not know how to transplant beet-root, and how to sow wheat. They would be strong in fencing, but weak in the art of farming. On the contrary, the new country should be opened to everyone. Intelligent men would make positions for themselves; the others would succumb. It is a natural law."
A pause ensued. Everyone smiled. Georges Duroy, startled at the sound of his own voice, as if he had never heard it, said:
"What is needed the most down there is good soil. Really fertile land costs as much as it does in France and is bought by wealthy Parisians. The real colonists, the poor, are generally cast out into the desert, where nothing grows for lack of water."
All eyes turned upon him. He colored. M. Walter asked: "Do you know Algeria, sir?"
He replied: "Yes, sir, I was there twenty-eight months." Leaving the subject of colonization, Norbert de Varenne questioned him as to some of the Algerian customs. Georges spoke with animation; excited by the wine and the desire to please, he related anecdotes of the regiment, of Arabian life, and of the war.
Mme. Walter murmured to him in her soft tones: "You could write a series of charming articles."
Forestier took advantage of the situation to say to M. Walter: "My dear sir, I spoke to you a short while since of M. Georges Duroy and asked you to permit me to include him on the staff of political reporters. Since Marambot has left us, I have had no one to take urgent and confidential reports, and the paper is suffering by it."
M. Walter put on his spectacles in order to examine Duroy. Then he said: "I am convinced that M. Duroy is original, and if he will call upon me tomorrow at three o'clock, we will arrange matters." After a pause, turning to the young man, he said: "You may write us a short sketch on Algeria, M. Duroy. Simply relate your experiences; I am sure they will interest our readers. But you must do it quickly."
Mme. Walter added with her customary, serious grace: "You will have a charming title: 'Souvenirs of a Soldier in Africa.' Will he not, M. Norbert?"
The old poet, who had attained renown late in life, disliked and mistrusted newcomers. He replied dryly: "Yes, excellent, provided that it is written in the right key, for there lies the great difficulty."
Mme. Forestier cast upon Duroy a protecting and smiling glance which seemed to say: "You shall succeed." The servant filled the glasses with wine, and Forestier proposed the toast: "To the long prosperity of 'La Vie Francaise.'" Duroy felt superhuman strength within him, infinite hope, and invincible resolution. He was at his ease now among these people; his eyes rested upon their faces with renewed assurance, and for the first time he ventured to address his neighbor:
"You have the most beautiful earrings I have ever seen."
She turned toward him with a smile: "It is a fancy of mine to wear diamonds like this, simply on a thread."
He murmured in reply, trembling at his audacity: "It is charming--but the ear increases the beauty of the ornament."
She thanked him with a glance. As he turned his head, he met Mme. Forestier's eyes, in which he fancied he saw a mingled expression of gaiety, malice, and encouragement. All the men were talking at the same time; their discussion was animated.
When the party left the dining-room, Duroy offered his arm to the little girl. She thanked him gravely and stood upon tiptoe in order to lay her hand upon his arm. Upon entering the drawing-room, the young man carefully surveyed it. It was not a large room; but there were no bright colors, and one felt at ease; it was restful. The walls were draped with violet hangings covered with tiny embroidered flowers of yellow silk. The portieres were of a grayish blue and the chairs were of all shapes, of all sizes; scattered about the room were couches and large and small easy-chairs, all covered with Louis XVI. brocade, or Utrecht velvet, a cream colored ground with garnet flowers.
"Do you take coffee, M. Duroy?" Mme. Forestier offered him a cup, with the smile that was always upon her lips.
"Yes, Madame, thank you." He took the cup, and as he did so, the young woman whispered to him: "Pay Mme. Walter some attention." Then she vanished before he could reply.
First he drank his coffee, which he feared he should let fall upon the carpet; then he sought a pretext for approaching the manager's wife and commencing a conversation. Suddenly he perceived that she held an empty cup in her hand, and as she was not near a table, she did not know where to put it. He rushed toward her:
"Allow me, Madame."
"Thank you, sir."
He took away the cup and returned: "If you, but knew, Madame, what pleasant moments 'La Vie Francaise' afforded me, when I was in the desert! It is indeed the only paper one cares to read outside of France; it contains everything."
She smiled with amiable indifference as she replied: "M. Walter had a great deal of trouble in producing the kind of journal which was required."
They talked of Paris, the suburbs, the Seine, the delights of summer, of everything they could think of. Finally M. Norbert de Varenne advanced, a glass of liqueur in his hand, and Duroy discreetly withdrew. Mme. de Marelle, who was chatting with her hostess, called him: "So, sir," she said bluntly, "you are going to try journalism?" That question led to a renewal of the interrupted conversation with Mme. Walter. In her turn Mme. de Marelle related anecdotes, and becoming familiar, laid her hand upon Duroy's arm. He felt that he would like to devote himself to her, to protect her--and the slowness with which he replied to her questions indicated his preoccupation. Suddenly, without any cause, Mme. de Marelle called: "Laurine!" and the girl came to her. "Sit down here, my child, you will be cold near the window."
Duroy was seized with an eager desire to embrace the child, as if part of that embrace would revert to the mother. He asked in a gallant, yet paternal tone: "Will you permit me to kiss you, Mademoiselle?" The child raised her eyes with an air of surprise. Mme. de Marelle said with a smile: "Reply."
"I will allow you to-day, Monsieur, but not all the time."
Seating himself, Duroy took Laurine upon his knee, and kissed her lips and her fine wavy hair. Her mother was surprised: "Well, that is strange! Ordinarily she only allows ladies to caress her. You are irresistible, Monsieur!"
Duroy colored, but did not reply.
When Mme. Forestier joined them, a cry of astonishment escaped her: "Well, Laurine has become sociable; what a miracle!"
The young man rose to take his leave, fearing he might spoil his conquest by some awkward word. He bowed to the ladies, clasped and gently pressed their hands, and then shook hands with the men. He observed that Jacques Rival's was dry and warm and responded cordially to his pressure; Norbert de Varenne's was moist and cold and slipped through his fingers; Walter's was cold and soft, without life, expressionless; Forestier's fat and warm.
His friend whispered to him: "To-morrow at three o'clock; do not forget."
When he reached the staircase, he felt like running down, his joy was so great; he went down two steps at a time, but suddenly on the second floor, in the large mirror, he saw a gentleman hurrying on, and he slackened his pace, as much ashamed as if he had been surprised in a crime.
He surveyed himself some time with a complacent smile; then taking leave of his image, he bowed low, ceremoniously, as if saluting some grand personage.