Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter II

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CHAPTER II

A PASTEL BY LATOUR

THE house possessed a character of its own, borrowed from that of its master.

We said the walls were grey, it would have been truer and more accurate to describe them as black.

You entered by a large door pierced in the wall, by the side of the concierge's lodge; inside you found yourself in a garden that was all hard earth without fiower-borders or flowers; there were summer-houses but no shade, vine trellises, but no grapes, trees but almost no leaves. If by any chance a blossom did blow in an odd corner, it was some wild flower that seemed almost ashamed to bloom amid city streets. It had surely mistaken this dark, damp enclosure for a desert place, deeming the habitations of mankind far away instead of close at hand. At any rate it found itself speedily culled by a charming, rosy-cheeked little girl with fair curly ringlets,—a cherub from the skies that had wandered unawares into this forlorn corner of earth.

From this garden, which might contain some forty or fifty square feet and ended in a broad strip of flags along the house front, you passed into a paved corridor. On this corridor, which led to a staircase at its extremity, four doors opened,—first on the left the dining-room, then to the right a small sitting-room. Beyond these, to the left again, came the kitchen, faced by the larder and kitchen offices. These ground floor rooms were dark and damp, and were hardly used except at meal times.

The living rooms proper, to which we were taken, were on the first floor. They comprised, besides the landing, a large drawing-room, a back-drawing, Madame Waldor's bedroom and Madame Villenave's.

The drawing-room was noteworthy for its shape and its furniture. It was an oblong, and in each corner was a console table and on it a bust, one of which represented Monsieur de Villenave. Between the two busts at the further end and facing the fireplace was another console bearing the most important ornament, of artistic and antiquarian interest, in the room. This was the bronze urn, which had contained the heart of Bayard; its rim bore a miniature bas-relief showing the "Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche" kissing the hilt of his sword. Two large canvases came next,—one, a Holbein, represented Anne Boleyn, the other was an Italian landscape by Claude Lorraine. The two corresponding frames on the opposite wall held, I think, the first a portrait of Madame de Montespan, the other of either Madame de Sévigné or Madame de Grignan. The furniture was in Utrecht velvet, great sofas with thin, white arms, for the families of the house, and chairs and armchairs for ordinary guests.

This floor was the especial domain of Madame Waldor; there she exercised her vice-royalty. We say vice-royalty advisedly, for as a matter of fact, spite of the surrender her father had made of the drawing-room to her, she reigned there only as Vice-Queen. The instant M. de Villenave entered the room, he resumed his royalty, and henceforward the reins of the conversation were in his hands.

Monsieur de Villenave had something of the despot in his character, and this applied not to his own family only, but included strangers as well. You felt, on crossing his threshold, that you became a part of the personal property, as it were, of this man, who had seen so much, read so deeply, in a word had such a range of knowledge. This despotism, tempered as it was by the great man's courtesy of manner, yet weighed oppressively on the company as a whole that assembled in his salon. It may be, when the master of the house was present, the conversation was better guided, to use an old-fashioned phrase, but assuredly it was not so free, not so diverting, not so bright and witty, as when he was away.

The exact opposite was the case with Charles Nodier's salon. The more Nodier was at his house, the more at home everybody felt.

Fortunately it was but seldom Monsieur de Villenave came down to the drawing-room. He confined himself as a rule to the second floor, and on common days only appeared for dinner. Then, after dinner, and a little talk, a little lecturing to his son, a little scolding to his wife, he would stretch himself in his armchair, shut his eyes, and have his hair put in curl-papers by his daughter,—and this operation completed, mount again to his own apartments. This fifteen minutes, during which the comb softly scratched his head, was the fifteen minutes of daily bliss and beatitude which M. de Villenave allowed himself.

But why curl-papers? the reader may well ask.

In the first place, it may be they were merely a pretext and excuse for getting his head scratched.

In the second, Monsieur de Villenave was a noble figure of an old man, we have said so before, and must have been extremely handsome in his younger days. His face, strongly-marked and bold-featured, was framed to great advantage by his flowing white locks, which brought out admirably the imposing flash of his great dark eyes.

The fact is, we must admit that, learned scholar as he was. Monsieur de Villenave was vain,—but vain as to the head, and nothing else. The rest of his person was of no importance. Whether his coat were blue or black, his trousers full or narrow, his boots round or square-toed, this concerned his tailor or his boot-maker, or rather, as a matter of fact, his daughter, who looked after all such details. Provided his hair was in curl and he had a good hat, he was satisfied.

So soon as his daughter had fixed his curl-papers,—an operation which was performed every evening without fail between eight and nine, Monsieur de Villenave took up his candlestick, and went upstairs to his own quarters.

These quarters, this at home, of Monsieur de Villenave we propose to depict, though without much hope of producing more than an imperfect sketch.

The second floor on which they were situated was divided into a far greater number of separate rooms than the first, and comprised, first, a landing decorated with plaster busts, an ante-room and four other rooms. These apartments we shall not classify as drawing-room, bedroom, working-room, dressing-room, etc., etc. What had Monsieur de Villenave to do with suchlike superfluous luxuries? He had five book-rooms, five print-rooms, and that was all he wanted. The five rooms contained perhaps forty thousand books and four thousand portfolios of prints.

The antechamber by itself formed a huge library. It had two doors,—opening, the one to the right into Monsieur de Villenave's bedroom, which again gave access by means of a passage behind the bed-recess to a large closet lighted by windows in the partition wall. The little end door led to a large room, itself again opening into a smaller one.

The large room in question opening into a smaller one, not only had, like its neighbour, its four walls fitted with book-cases crammed with books on the higher shelves and with portfolios in the lower compartments, but besides this a highly ingenious contrivance had been fixed in the middle of both rooms, somewhat resembling the erections we often see in the centre of a drawing-room, affording seats for guests all round it. Thanks to this construction, the middle of the room, which thus offered a second library inside the first, left very little free space, in fact only so minute a quadrangular area as sufficed for one person's moving about at a time. A second would have blocked the way; hence it was a very rare occurrence for Monsieur de Villenave to admit anyone, even the most intimate of friends, into this sanctum sanctorum.

Some few privileged individuals had pushed their heads in at the door, and across the learned dust that danced incessantly in the sparse sunbeams that penetrated this tabernacle, had obtained a fugitive glance at Monsieur de Villenave's bibliographical mysteries, much as Clodius, thanks to his disguise in woman's weeds, had contrived from the atrium of the Temple of Isis to catch a glimpse of the mysteries of the Bona Dea.

There were kept the autographs; the age of Louis XIV. alone filled five hundred portfolios. There were kept the papers of Louis XV., the correspondence of Malesherbes, four hundred autographs of Voltaire, two hundred of Bossuet. There were preserved the genealogies of all the noble houses of France, with particulars of their alliances and documentary proofs of their claims. There were stored the drawings by Rafael, Giulio Romano, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, by Lebrun, Lesueur, David, Lethière, the collections of minerals and rare herbs, the priceless manuscripts, some of them unique.

There in a word was the result of fifty years' incessant labour, mitigated by one controlling idea, stimulated day by day and hour by hour by one absorbing passion,—the passion at once so mild and so fervent of the collector, to which he dedicates his intellect and on which he stakes his joy, his happiness, his very life.

These two were the rooms of price. It is very certain that Monsieur de Villenave, who had on more than one occasion come near giving his life for nothing, would not have parted with the contents of these two rooms for a hundred thousand crowns.

The only rooms left to mention are the bedrooms and the dark closet, lying to the right of the antechamber and parallel with the two apartments we have just described. The first of the two was Monsieur de Villenave's bedroom, a bedroom wherein the bed was by far the least conspicuous object, concealed as it was in a recess closed by wooden folding doors.

It was here Monsieur de Villenave used to receive his friends. Here it was possible at a pinch to walk about, and even under difficulties to sit down. We will describe how the latter fact could be performed, and under what circumstances the former was practicable.

The old servant-maid,—I have forgotten her name,—would announce a visitor to Monsieur de Villenave, half opening the door of his room. The action invariably surprised Monsieur de Villenave in the middle of classifying a new acquisition or dreaming a day dream or taking a nap.

"Eh! what is it, Françoise?" (We will assume her name was Françoise.) "Good God! can't I be left a minute in peace?"

"La, Sir!" Françoise would answer, "I'm bound to come . . ."

"Well, well; quick, say what you want. I wonder why this always happens just when I am particularly busy? . . . Well?"—and Monsieur de Villenave would raise his great eyes to heaven with an expression of despair, folding his hands and uttering a sigh of resignation.

Françoise for her part was familiar with the whole performance, and waited quietly till Monsieur de Villenave had duly completed his pantomime and his stage asides. Then, when he had done,

"Sir," she would say, "it is Monsieur So-and-so, who has come to pay you a little visit."

"I am not at home; so be off with you."

Françoise would close the door slowly and gradually; she knew the way of it.

"Wait a moment, Françoise," Monsieur de Villenave would call after her.

"Sir?"

Françoise would push the door open again.

"You say it is Monsieur So-and-so, Françoise, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, well! ask him to come in; then, if he stays too long, you can come and tell me I am wanted. Off with you, my girl."

Françoise would release the door.

"Monstrous, monstrous, by the Lord!" Monsieur de Villenave would grumble to himself; "I never go disturbing people, yet they must always be disturbing me."

Françoise would open the door once more, to admit the visitor.

"Ah, good-day, my dear friend," Monsieur de Villenave would exclaim, "Welcome, welcome, come in. It is ages since I have seen you. Sit down, do."

"What on?" the visitor would ask.

"Why, on whatever you like, egad! . . . on the sofa."

"Willingly, only . . ."

Monsieur de Villenave would glance at the sofa.

"Ah, true, true! it is full up with books," he would say, "Well then, draw up an armchair."

"I would with pleasure, but you see . . ."

Monsieur de Villenave would make a survey of his armchairs.

"True again!" he would go on; "but what would you have, my dear fellow? I don't know where to put my books. Take an ordinary chair.

"I should be delighted, but,—but . . ."

"But what? you are in a hurry?"

"Not I; but I cannot see a vacant chair any more than I can an unoccupied armchair."

"Monstrous, monstrous!" Monsieur de Villenave would groan, lifting his two arms to heaven; "monstrous! but wait a moment."

Then he would leave his place, grumbling and groaning, carefully remove from a chair the books that obstructed it, put these on the floor, where they added yet another mole-hill to twenty or thirty other similar mole-hills encumbering the floor of the room; after which he would bring the said chair to the side of his own armchair which stood at the chimney-corner.

This is how you managed to sit down in this singular room. Now I must detail the circumstances under which you could walk about in it.

It would sometimes occur that, when, the visitor came in, and after the indispensable preamble we have just described, had finally sat down, it would sometimes occur I say that, by a twofold chance, the door of the bed recess and the door of the passage, which led to the closet behind the recess, were both open at the same time. Then, by this double combination of chances, through these two open doorways, it became possible to see hanging in the recess a pastel drawing representing a young and pretty woman holding a letter in her hand, the picture being lighted by the gleam of daylight which entered by the passage window.

Then, unless the visitor had no idea of art whatever,—and it was seldom Monsier de Villenave's friends were not artistic in one direction or another,—he would spring up, crying:

"Ah, sir! what a perfectly delightful pastel"—and he would make as if to pass from the fireside to the recess.

"Wait, wait!" Monsieur de Villenave would protest. "One moment!"

Indeed, on closer inspection, you would observe that two or three mole-hills of books, tumbling one over the other, formed a sort of irregularly shaped counterscarp that had to be cleared in order to reach the recess.

Then Monsieur de Villenave would rise, and walking first, would open a narrow new cutting, like a skilled miner excavating a trench, through the typographical obstacle, thus making it possible to arrive in front of the drawing, which itself was in front of his bed.

Arrived there, the visitor could only repeat: "Ah, what a perfectly charming pastel!"

"Yes" Monsieur de Villenave would answer with that air of old fashioned courtesy I have only known in him and two or three old men of fashion like himself; "Yes, it is a pastel by Latour. It represents an old and dear friend of mine; she is no longer young, for, as well as I can recollect, she was in 1784, the date when I knew her, my elder by five or six years. We have not seen each other again since 1802, which fact in no way prevents our writing to each other every week, and receiving each other's periodical letters with corresponding pleasure. Yes, you are right, the pastel is indeed charming; but the original was very much more charming still."

As he pronounced the words, a ray of youth, soft as a sunbeam, would pass over the glowing face of the old man, who looked for the moment forty years younger.

Very often, when this had happened, Françoise found no need to bring any pretended message, for if the visitor were a man of tact and good feeling, he would take his departure in a few moments and leave Monsieur de Villenave alone to the reverie which the sight of Latour's beautiful pastel had awakened in the old man's breast.