Stories by Foreign Authors (French III)/Father and Son
FATHER AND SON
By arrangement with the author.
The translation by Elisabeth Luther Cary.
That evening I was silent, to hide an uneasiness charged with emotion. At first I hardly replied to certain trifling questions from my wife. But Juliette chirped prettily, a dish that I like was served—a savory "stew" which our cook, who is from my part of the country, excels in preparing with certain special relishes.
Little by little my nerves relaxed and my mind grew calm under the influence of my comfortable surroundings. Just now in my office, reflection had shown me nothing but catastrophe close at hand, but here, in the peace of my abode, I gained confidence. Hackneyed arguments sufficed to drive away my anxiety—difficulties always turn out better than one expects. I have already passed successfully through similar crises—the worst seldom happens! The comforting warmth of a good glass of Bordeaux accentuated this better mood. I grew cheerful and commenced to talk of things and people as if the revolution in Brazil had never broken out. Just then a telegram was brought me. Immediately the tide of care swept over me anew, and I was conscious of trembling as I opened the despatch.
The emotion it aroused in me—a very different emotion from that which had shaken me since morning—was so violent and so obvious that my wife, rising from the table and coming to me, said at once:
"What ails you? What is the matter?"
"My father is very ill," I replied, and repeated mechanically, "very ill!"
Juliette, who has a lively imagination and cannot bear to hear of illness, gave a little cry like a frightened bird, while Laurence asked:
"Grandpapa, what is the matter with him?"
"They give me no details," I answered. "It is Aldouve who telegraphs, Aldouve, the gardener. I will go at once."
I had hardly uttered these words when solicitude for my business interests seized me again. I drove it away, trying to persuade myself that my absence was possible, as during the day I had done all that I was able, and could not further influence events taking place at a distance. I consulted the time-table. A train would leave about ten o'clock.
"Do you wish me to go with you?" asked Marguerite. Surprise and compassion were in her kind, faithful eyes; doubtless my emotion astonished her, for we seldom talked of my father.
"No," I replied, "I will first go alone. You will do better to stay here. I will telegraph you if you are needed."
The preparations were hurried through. Do what I would my business cares regained possession of me. I thought rapidly of many things. I wrote three or four urgent letters. I entrusted to my wife a note containing divers directions for my head clerk. And all with that feverish agitation which unforeseen trouble provokes, when grief swoops down with fatal suddenness upon us, and we perceive the unexpected tokens of destiny.
All sorts of ideas jostled each other in my brain, obscuring the vision of suffering and death which had been called up by the telegram, so that in the confusion into which the news from my father had thrown me I hardly thought of him at all.
In the cab that took me to the Lyons station, a new wave of the tumultuous flood that was tossing me about brought his image before me, nor did the vision leave me. I had it all night for company as the train was speeding through the dark.
The last time I had seen my father—but could it be that this was many years ago? That visit to the old country home in which my childhood had been passed, and to which my father had welcomed me and my young family with jocund pleasure, came back to me by small degrees in its least details. I recalled him as he then was, tall, vigorous, solidly built, with roughly-hewn features softened by age, and by the whitening of his flat-lying hair and of his thick rough beard, which he wore full. He had the powerful body and strong head of an old countryman whom the seasons have strengthened as they strengthen the elms and the oaks. Up early, active, drinking freely of the light white wine of his own vineyards, eating with a lusty appetite of hams smoked in his own tall chimney and of savory vegetables from his garden, he was in the habit of saying:
"I am cut out for a centenarian."
He thought he was, and so did I. When one is sturdy and healthy, it is easy to believe it will last for ever; then illness draws near, and its thin finger marks you with the irresistible sign, and there the man is—bending, shrivelling, dissolving, like a tree whose roots are dry, and whose wasted tissues must fall under the axe. It is a horrible universal drama, taking its cruel course throughout devastating time; but we are conscious of it only when we are among the actors or victims.
That reunion lasted a fortnight. It was in September; the peaches were ripening against the walls, the grapes were turning golden among the vines, and the sunsets were magnificent over the mountains on which snow had already begun to appear. My father took an extraordinary liking to my two little girls, who soon became his constant companions. They were everywhere together, among the flower-beds where the last roses were blooming, under the apple trees weighted with their heavy harvest, and in the groves where dead leaves were already whirling.
They trotted off together, the old man between the two children, stopping, all of them, to smell a flower or pluck a fruit, while Muquet, the old mountain dog, one-eyed and tawny-coated, followed them, the plume of his tail erect. I would even find my father seated on a bench, a child on either knee, singing as he danced them up and down:
"Une poule sur un mur
Qui picote du pain dur."
(A chicken on a wall, picking dry bread.)
Those were delightful days, affectionate, careless, joyous, friendly days. How soon they fled! When the moment came for leaving, while our trunks were being piled on the stage that came to fetch us, my father, for an instant, was near breaking down. But he was a valiant old man who had learned from life the high virtue of resignation; he straightened up to his great stature, steadied his glance, and smiled with a touch of bravado, so the farewells were gayly got through with—farewells, alas! that might be for ever.
"Adieu, grandfather, adieu."
"Au revoir, little ones, come again soon, eh?"
"Yes, oh, yes, next year."
"And you, father," said my wife, "you are coming to spend a little time with us, are n't you?"
"Certainly,—in the spring."
Just at that word, I remember, the vehicle commenced to jolt along, and we turned to wave our handkerchiefs. A little later, as our train passed in front of the house, we waved again from the door, and my father responded from one of his windows. Was that the last time I was ever to see him! For he did not keep his promise and come to Paris. A man of the old school, jealously attached to his corner of the earth and to his habits, my father detested travel, where everything offended him; the scenery because it differed from that which for seventy years his eyes had looked upon, the people because he knew them neither by name nor family, the cooking because it was not like his own. I trembled to recall a former visit he had made us; one of perpetual discontent, during which he complained of the adulterated wine, of the unsalted bread, of the butter which smelt of margarine, of the narrow rooms, the noise in the streets, the concierge who looked at him crossly, the cook who certainly took toll on her marketing. I confess I dreaded a repetition of those painful experiences. They will never, alas! be repeated. The chain of habit, stronger even than the attraction of the children, kept him away; he did not come.
The following year, instead of going back to him, we were obliged, on Juliette's account, to go to the sea; the year after to Centeret on my wife's account, then again to the sea. Each time I wrote him a word to postpone our promised visit until the next year. I believed what I said, and so time passed. Our thoughts, moreover, were far from him. At long intervals we exchanged the short letters that one writes from a sense of duty without having much to say. At bottom he and I were but two strangers, united by only a fragile bond: I was trying to shape my life, absorbed by difficulties that my father had never known: he, on his part, was rounding out his life in his little home among the fields, preoccupied with cultivating his land, and battling against phylloxera, oïdium, and mildew; cared for by Josette and Joseph, his old servant and his gardener-coachman; and sometimes diverted by visits from his neighbors. Thus separated, we had no need of one another, and I was astonished by the profound sentiment which the telegram just received had aroused in my heart; the torture it had given me in that train of so slow a flight, to think that I should arrive perhaps too late, that the sight would have gone from his eyes, that the voice would have died on his lips, that he would pass away with strangers, by his bedside.
One moment this grievous death-scene would possess my mind, the next it would be dissipated in the darkness like a nightmare that is over and leaves you bruised, and other visions would rise about me, crowding memories of childhood and youth, faces and pictures etched in the book of memory. I recalled my father at different epochs, and seemed to see him among groups of people who looked blurred as through a heavy mist; I heard certain phrases that he used to be fond of repeating, with his own peculiar accent and the very sound of his voice. I went through the phases of feeling I had had for him. When I was little I was afraid of him, for he was often brusque to the point of violence, and there came before me the pale, delicate face of my mother, whose fragility suffered from these storms that swept over her, as a too fierce wind over a frail plant. But he changed from year to year; he softened as good wine mellows with age. What a faithful companion he was for me later, when I had become that insupportable being, a "young man!" Each summer I came to spend some weeks with him, and oh, how good the smile of his welcome! We used to stroll together through the neighboring woods, along the stream that runs the mill-wheel, among the bunches of meadow-sweet, whose pale clusters sway on slender stems. Often, also, of an evening we would go to the town and to the "Club," for a game of billiards. My father was very proud of me, Heaven knows why! and took pleasure in showing me to the old frequenters of the place, slow, grave men who looked me over with slightly distrustful curiosity; methodical players, each of whom had his peculiarity. One, a very awkward man with a good, sunburnt face, and a grizzly goatee, would never let his ball go, without muttering despairingly, striking the floor with his cue, "A little too much to the right—a failure!" Another, long, thin, and bilious, could not miss a carom without crying, "No luck!" and greeted the successful shots of his adversaries with an envious, "What luck!" A third, a fat man, with a sleek face, and the look of a museum attendant, moved his lips while taking slow aim, as if he were mumbling a prayer, and followed the ball with his cue as if to continue directing its course. They were all worthy people who had known each other for years, and met each evening without tiring of each other, to exchange the same remarks over their ration of white wine, which was seldom varied. Those who did not play billiards played piquet. At ten o'clock the voice of the watchman was heard, according to the antiquated custom, calling out, "Ten o'clock! It has struck ten!" Then they hastened to finish their game, and went each to his home. How many happenings since that far time! Scarcely twenty years, and all that life passed away, all the waters of that stream which had united so many diverse elements and had borne one across so many imperceptible changes toward the unknown future. In the ego of to-day how much endures of the ego of those dead times? I could not say. And as for the man once so strong, and so gleeful in winning his game, how much of him remains in the old man for whom the death-pang is lying in wait?
Meanwhile, the slope of memory declined farther and farther down the past. Some years—those that bridged the space between early infancy and youth—fled away as if their dust had left no trace. I saw my father again, still younger, more robust, and gruffer as well, surrounded by other faces, the features of which seemed half-effaced like those of old daguerreo-types. I recalled him as he looked on the night of a fire, protecting the house and the singed horses from the flames that were devouring the farm buildings, shouting out orders in a loud voice like a sea-captain in a tempest. I recalled another night, when, with head bent, and hands clasped behind him, and sighing heavily, he paced the room in a corner of which I crouched, terrified and trembling at being for the first time in the presence of death which had just swept my mother away from me. I felt on my forehead the scalding moisture of his tears as he took me in his arms, murmuring, "Poor little one! you do not know! You do not know!"
I heard his grumbling voice reproaching my grandmother, so kind and so wrinkled, who never came near me without her hands filled with dainties, scolding her for her indulgence and reiterating his favorite phrase: "Leave the boy alone, mother, you'll make a girl of him!" And then the holidays, across which passed his high and sombre silhouette; the Christmas-tree sparkling with candles, or the reunions about the great table of a family now dispersed or dissolved, or the distribution of prizes, after which the rugged fatherly hand gently patted my cheek,—a thousand episodes familiar to us all, recurring almost alike in all lives at their beginning, however bitter or culpable they may become, with the same gay and simple charm.
And the train darted along, as swift as memory, among the black, invisible landscapes of the night. And the time thus filled with thoughts and dreams seemed to me infinitely slow in passing. I panted with eagerness to reach my father more quickly, to put my arms about him once more, to see the smile of greeting come into his eyes, to hear his words of welcome. As the night advanced this desire became more intense and despairing, aggravated into a sort of fever filled with ominous forebodings.
"I shall not see him again. . . . They sent me word too late! Ah! why did they, why did they!" And thus probing the secret depths of my heart, I discovered infinite affection which I had never known was there,—a world of love which I had never had the leisure to explore.
Carried along on the current of my busy life, I had fancied myself characterized by great indifference, by a tenacious will and a dry heart. Ah, how mistaken I was! My life, which I dreamed was given essentially over to ambition, belonged, root and sap, to these dear people. Oh, what a poor man of business I was just then! My solicitude concerning operations that were under way, whose issue might destroy the structure of my fortune, gave place to that other solicitude which seemed to me a thousand times more important. Death, entering my circle, lighted it with a sudden illumination, and I perceived hidden things with the dazzlement of one passing abruptly, with quivering lids, out of darkness into light.
At dawn I was obliged to leave the express and wait at a junction for the local train which should bring me to my journey's end. Against a misty sky, filled with clouds, in the uncertain glimmering light, the silhouettes of the mountains softly massed themselves, surrounding with a vast amphitheatre the hideous buildings of the station, the long lines of empty cars, the idle locomotives. Near by some factory chimneys, tall and unsymmetrical, sent their smoke into the morning twilight. I freshened myself up, swallowed a cup of chocolate, and wandered out on the platform among the peasants with their baskets. When I got into another car—one of those disjointed, slovenly cars used by local lines,—I was more hopeful and more serene. The torture of the night became less harassing. I let myself be diverted by the spectacle of the daybreak, by the appearance of the sun, climbing like a flame up the sky, by the coming of the countrymen to their tasks, stretching themselves out on the ground or straightening themselves up to interrogate space, shielding their eyes with the hand, by the flight of birds who rose at the passing of the train, by the farms that filed past us, humming with activity like bee-hives. Upon the going of the long night comes the renewal of cheerful, laborious life, forbidding men to lie back upon their griefs or their regrets, pushing them to healthful action, to salutary effort, leading them through mirages the whole unreality of which they never know. The human beings whom I saw scattered over the fields were like myself. They had fathers, wives, children, they loved them, lost them, mourned them,—and went on living as before. For all, the task of the day was the chief affair; grief might interrupt it for a moment—then it began again, with its cruel and wholesome exigency, engrossing strength, attention,—soul! And, after all, what could one wish better? Detached from this commonplace duty of providing for current needs, our souls wander through space like lost birds; nothing guides them, nothing satisfies them, and such is our weakness, that to regulate their flight we must have this duty of gaining bit by bit our daily bread.
The train now stopped at petty stations, the names of which, called out by the employees, with a country accent, brought back another series of recollections. Between my twelfth and sixteenth years, my father was in the habit of taking me for a walk each Sunday, winter and summer, for health's sake he said. I was lazy about walking, and detested these excursions. But he would not give them up or let me escape them. Thus have I traversed the country with him, sometimes walking, sometimes driving, or else on this very railroad, the cars of which were never new, in order to reach a more distant station. In all these towns, scattered over the plain or perched on the lower buttresses of the Jura, my father had friends who welcomed us,—worthy people to whom I should have preferred comrades of my own age; or, perhaps we would stop at an inn to refresh ourselves with an omelette and a glass of white wine. I now recognized certain of those inns and hospitable homes, much the same as in old days, some of them a little more dilapidated, others renovated, and surrounded merely by thicker verdure; and I discovered also, in the depths of my memory, the fragrance of the omelettes, and the flavor of the wine that my father used to taste critically—so proud of guessing its year! Then suddenly, as if nearing a village, the train slackened speed before an old house of vaguely seigneurial aspect; I recalled, as clear as sight, a young girl in a white gown, very blond and rosy, whom I had seen one of those Sundays, on the terrace of that house, seated in the shadow of hundred-year-old chestnut trees, and of whom I had dreamed. Ah! how many such trifles embroider their little imperceptible dots on the canvas of life. How many minute recollections are engraved upon us so forcibly that time cannot efface them, and one may always find, under the strata of years, the pattern of their deep lines. While the hours thus filled were passing, they seemed irksome to me, and took their course without leaving any impression of delight. Now, from afar, they developed an unsuspected charm.
If I could only call them back, just as they were, for the moment needed to fix them again in mind!
If I could only pass along one of these roads, that interlace across the fields, skirting the farm walls, and running through clumps of trees or villages, I in my schoolboy blouse, my soul untarnished, my hand in my good father's hand!
It is a barren and cowardly prayer. I well know that nothing goes back to its beginning, that no stream returns to its source; that one must run with the years, and not be wasteful in regret for a past that no effort can regain.
Anxiety claimed me again as I caught sight of the station at the end of my sorrowful journey. With its openwork balcony running along its single story and its indented roof, it bears a specious resemblance to an Alpine chalet. A thick ivy grows luxuriantly along the walls. A very beautiful garden surrounds it: for the station-master is an ardent gardener, and with the modest plot of ground given over to him along the rails he has managed to make a charming flower-bed, whose old unfashionable flowers I used to love,—asters, dragon-flowers, balsams, china-asters, bleached dandelions; flowers that have almost disappeared, driven out by the complicated inventions of fashionable horticulturists, and that now linger only in some old gardens like this one, where they make one think of ancient ladies playing upon the harpsichord.
This station-master, formerly an officer in Africa, stranded in this lost corner of the world after an adventurous youth of which certain episodes, distorted by tradition, are current through the countryside, was an original character, a "type" as we should say. I caught sight of him, aged, whitened, and his figure broken, as he passed in his gold-laced cap before the cars as they were opened. Formerly he had held his bell in his hand, swinging it with a fine gesture of authority after making sure that all was right. Now having only to make signals to put in motion an electric arrangement of bells, he kept his hand swinging. I fancy no other change had come into the steady life of this rather unsociable old bachelor, who was a poet in his way and a thinker. He did not recognize me, perhaps because he did not take the trouble to look at me; these good country people who are so curious concerning each other are altogether indifferent to strangers. And I was now a stranger indeed, in a region the places of which had been pictured in my childish eyes, beside the old garden I had loved, and before the station that had been intermingled with so many of my memories.
My little bag in my hand, I proceeded toward my father's house.
It rose beside the road, a few moments distant from the little town whose silhouette was blocked out upon a hill. It is an old house to which belongs a farm, with farm buildings. It is two stories high, crude white, with a pent-roof, and green blinds. A beautiful ivy decorates one of the walls, while over the front climbs a singular flower, which my grandmother used to tell of having planted the first year of her married life. It is called the "Passion flower" because its pistils represent the Cross, the nails, and the crown ot thorns in beautiful tints of limpid blue. I do not know if it is a rare plant, but I have never seen it elsewhere; my father used to tend it with restless care; how much concern it has given him, and how many precautions he has taken to preserve it, through the terrible winters when the frost seared its poor stems and sought out even its roots under the earth. One year, indeed, it nearly perished. We were almost a house of mourning. But it recovered, and my father rejoiced as if some mysterious sign had promised him the continuance, after a crisis, of his race in vigorous life.
The blinds were opened wide to the balmy breezes of the morning, a ray of sunlight fell on the old roof, wrapping it in an atmosphere of luminous cheerfulness. Behind the wall of the inclosure rose the crests of apple trees in blossom—of fine old apple trees with regular branches, like bouquets arranged by a skilful hand. And the flight of birds streaked the air vibrating with their reiterated calls. How could one believe that near by, at that very moment, the last act of the drama of life was passing? how was it possible that death could hover amid the sweetness and joy pervading everything?
With a trembling heart, but still a little reassured by the smiling aspect of the place, I pulled the bell at the doorway. I waited for a long time. Heavy steps creaked on the gravel, and old Josette appeared, wrinkled as a blighted apple, with locks of gray hair coming out from under her black cap. She threw up her hands, and straightway blurted out her familiar exclamation:
"Do tell! Mr. Paul, do tell!" Her astonishment still more reassured me.
"How is my father?" I asked. Instead of answering my question she cried again:
"How surprised monsieur will be! For you were not expected. Not that I should reproach you, Mr. Paul, but it is a long time since you have seen him! He talks of you continually. And when I say, 'Why does n't Mr. Paul come to see you,' he answers, 'It is business!'"
I interrupted her, repeating my question:
"But how is he?"
This time she replied:
"So, so, Mr. Paul, so, so. One day passable, the next day worse. There are times when he cannot get his breath. He coughs and coughs until he is blue. The doctor comes every morning to see how he is getting on."
She spoke in an even tone, as if there were nothing alarming in these symptoms, with the calmness of one who cannot perceive, through the force of habit, the approach of death.
"Does he keep his bed?"
"He keep his bed! You do not know him, then. He will go to the last moment, I tell you. Gets up with the sun, like a young man. When he can't keep around, he stays in his arm-chair, that's all. In the morning he gardens."
As I took a step forward, she stopped me:
"Wait till I go and prepare him. It might give him a shock to see you suddenly like that."
Josette preceded me, heavy, slow, and limping a little. I crossed the vestibule, then the kitchen where the copper of the stew-pan and "boilers" was shining, and waited in the dining-room. That was the room in which the family was oftenest used to gather, in former days. An old stove of decorated faïence heated it in winter; pictures that I had all my life known, adorned the walls, old-fashioned pictures, contemporaneous with the romances of Louisa Paget, which they somewhat resembled: "The Penitent Brigand and his Son," "The Children of Edward," etc. I thought of the evenings under the lamp, so tranquil and so monotonous; of the silent games of "Goose" that my father sometimes permitted me; of the vanished faces I had seen about that table, now confused in the far depths of the past. The door opened. My father appeared, in a knitted jersey, shod with sabots, an old hat on his head.
"Ha! It is you—"
In old times I was accustomed to his indifferent greeting—he detested demonstration, and there was, moreover, between us, that indefinable something that separates members of the same family when they do not resemble one another, a sort of reciprocal distrust that paralyzes the impulses of affection. But this time his eyes smiled with a smile that I did not know, a smile of ample joy. Then suddenly he broke into tears, throwing his arms about me:
"It is you—it is you!"
He had become small, withered, shrunken; he felt little in my arms and light. He whom I had known so strong and powerful, robust as an oak, was but a poor yielding thing, fragile and flickering like a little candle flame one dares not breathe upon. His features were drawn and sharpened. His eyes looked glazed and retained only an uncertain expression of astonishment and discomfort. He dropped into his arm-chair, still weeping. And that was the rounding out of the revelation that for twelve hours had been unfolding to me the neglected mysteries of affection. He said:
"Ah! I am glad to see you—so glad!"
He asked about my family, and a glow of tenderness came into his eyes when he spoke the names of the two little girls. He recalled their words, their gestures, their attitudes, their artless ways, and plied me with a thousand questions:
"Does Laurence still believe in Santa Claus? Does Juliette still make those profound observations that used to amaze us? Have they sometimes spoken of their grandfather?" Then his glance wandering, he was silent a moment, and, as if the better to awaken recollection of the delightful hours he was pondering on, he quavered:
"Une poule sur un mur."
I was obliged to go over all the little round of our life for him, and I was vexed with myself for my ignorance of slight details which he himself, so far away, had almost guessed by sheer force of thinking about us.
Then suddenly he changed the conversation's course; he spoke of himself, of his house, of his farmer who had given him some anxiety, of his vines which were suffering from mildew, of what he had done and what he counted on doing. From childhood I had known my father as a man of projects, enterprising, loving change and experiments. How many ingenious plans he had made for enlarging or embellishing his house, for augmenting the product of his farm, for battling against the enemies of trees, grain, and vine-stock! Endowed to an exceptional degree with the spirit of initiative, he lacked as much all faculty of realization, so that his projects came to nothing. This time I was frightened by the abundance of the schemes that he commenced to develop for me in his poor, broken, panting voice. He was concerned about the construction of a veranda in front of the dining-room, with enlarging the asparagus bed, with planting new trees—the pear and apple trees being old now, and worn out—the bark was splitting and they gave but mediocre harvest. To plant and build, build and plant—it is one of Nature's beneficent tricks to urge us toward remote aims when our strength is failing us. Thus she cradles us in supreme illusions, keeping out of our sight the frightful vision of the end that lies in wait for us. At her bidding the mirage of a thousand objects plays before us, exciting our desire,—objects that our desire is never to grasp. . . .
"Come with me and let me explain! . . ."
With a revival of strength my father drew me into the garden, which we commenced to explore in every direction. He paused before some peach trees that were dying with two or three flowers on their branches.
"They should have been changed last year," he said, "but I was not very well, I was not able to busy myself with the garden. This year I will fix all that!"
He rested his hand on the trunk of a pear tree, and said tenderly:
"That tree used to give famous pears. The 'beurées grises,' you remember? But for two years it has not borne. It still blossoms a little, and then the fruit falls before it ripens. I see that it must be cut down—and that will hurt!" He was animated, cheerful, vivacious, and like himself; so that I took comfort to myself, thinking, "They were too easily alarmed, they mistook an adventitious attack for fatal symptoms."
Yes, I tried to take comfort, and breathed again after the anguish of the journey, relieved of the burden of regret which had weighed so heavily on my heart.
The morning passed rapidly and almost gayly. The lovely April sun was climbing lightly upward in the heavens; the smell of sap was in the air; life surrounded us—that renewal of things that, each springtime, revives the illusion of their eternity. Toward eleven o'clock, my father suddenly recollected that he had given me nothing to eat, and was disconsolate. "You must be dying of hunger. Why did n't you speak?"
He would not believe that I could very well wait for lunch, which Josette announced even as we were debating.
"That settles the question," said I. And I inhaled the aroma of well-known dishes, the old country dishes, savory smoked sausages, cooked in a sort of pie, a fine cheese omelette, a "stew" made pungent with skilfully distributed herbs. With a trembling hand my father filled my glass, eulogizing, as he always used to, on his light wine:
"Just taste that for me, and tell me what you think of it! A little bit new; but it will be something famous!"
I noticed that he did not fill his own glass.
"How about you?"
He heaved a deep sigh.
"It is forbidden," he said. "The doctor pretends that it is n't good for me. What does the doctor know, after all? Just once, more's the pity, to your health!"
And he clicked his glass against mine, after pouring into it a few glistening drops of wine. Then he smacked his lips, with a critical approving air, and said:
"I'll send you a barrel when you are back in Paris. But you are going to stay awhile, are n't you?"
That simple question, although I had expected it, was enough rudely to reawaken the anxiety concerning my affairs which had been merged in the other anxiety. But there was such longing in my father's eyes, such supplicating desire, that I could not help replying:
"Oh, yes! certainly, until I am recalled."
He pondered a moment, his eyes rather vague, and after a little hesitation, asked me:
"What brought you anyway?"
I had expected that question also, but it troubled me. I began to explain.
"I had for a long time been promising myself a turn in the country. I find myself a little tired. I am going to take a little vacation."
His penetrating eyes were on me; he certainly could not believe me, he must be guessing the true cause of my coming. But he would take care not to show it. Driving away the importunate thought with a gesture of his hand, moving it across his face as if he were brushing off a fly, he murmured:
"Good, good, good."
Then I observed that he was not eating; he would put a morsel on his plate, cut it up with his knife, taste it with a grimace, and scold Josette, who defended her cooking by grumbling:
"It is certainly because monsieur has no appetite!"
"I tell you that your butter was not fresh—and what a sauce!—a tasty sauce, indeed, and with a confoundedly bad taste!"
And I thought of his former scoldings that used to frighten me so, when I was little; then he had a big voice, an abundant vocabulary energetic gestures; now he scolded gently, without authority, a little like a wayward child. It did not frighten his old servant, who bent to let the storm pass over her, and answered even when he commanded her to be silent. And, finally, he ended by smiling himself at his vain anger. I do not know why this little scene filled me with melancholy. I felt suddenly different, alien, lost in that familiar house, as one might be in a place he had never seen before, made uneasy by the hours and days stretching before me to be filled. Ah! too many things now separated me from my old father, from my distant past—too many things which had built up another soul within me! Here I was no longer anything more than an up-rooted tree, brought back to its native soil when the torn roots have long been dead. And I understood that verity, glimpses of which I had caught in those too rare hours when I had leisure for dreaming: that the only important thing in this life of ours—so difficult to live—is to maintain intact the sacred bonds that hold together the members of one family. We sacrifice too much to ambition; we should live for our own people, in the place where we were born, near the blessed earth in which our ancestors are sleeping, and which will one day receive us. And I pictured to myself our life as it might have been, all united in this dear house, among these old belongings, about this patriarch, whom we would have wrapped in filial love. But I had turned aside to follow other paths, toward another destiny. My children would do as I had done. Thus actual life will have it, destroyer that it is of legitimate affection, enemy of all that is enduring,—a vortex that draws us in, and passes on. Doubtless, the reflection of these sombre thoughts was shown in my face, for my father, observing me with secret solicitude, perceived it, and asked:
"What is it?"
I pleaded the fatigue of the journey.
"You did not sleep on the train?"
"Hum! You must lie down for a while after dinner."
This loving kindliness kept me from pursuing my calculation as to when I could get back to my business; for my uneasiness had vanished on seeing my father animated almost to the point of alertness, and interesting himself in so many things, and with it had gone a little of my tenderness, which his goodness brought back. But now, suddenly, as we were rising from the table, he turned pale, trembled and fell back in his chair, his eyes turned up, his chest heaving violently in the effort to breathe. The attack was short; he came out of it exhausted and gasping, and I realized that I had not come much too soon, that through the familiar scenes of the morning death was approaching, swift, invisible, inexorable,—I saw it leaning over us, ready to take him from me for ever.