Tales of Two Countries/Pharaoh
She had mounted the shining marble steps without mishap, without labour, sustained by her great beauty and her fine nature alone. She had taken her place in the salons of the rich and great without paying for her admittance with her honour or her good name. Yet no one could say whence she came, though people whispered that it was from the depths.
As a waif of a Parisian faubourg, she had starved through her childhood among surroundings of vice and poverty, such as those only can conceive who know them by experience. Those of us who get our knowledge from books and from hearsay have to strain our imagination in order to form an idea of the hereditary misery of a great city, and yet our most terrible imaginings are apt to pale before the reality.
It had been only a question of time when vice should get its clutches upon her, as a cog-wheel seizes whoever comes too near the machine. After whirling her around through a short life of shame and degradation, it would, with mechanical punctuality, have cast her off into some corner, there to drag out to the end, in sordid obscurity, her caricature of an existence.
But it happened, as it does sometimes happen, that she was "discovered" by a man of wealth and position, one day when, a child of fourteen, she happened to cross one of the better streets. She was on her way to a dark back room in the Rue des Quatre Vents, where she worked with a woman who made artificial flowers.
It was not only her extraordinary beauty that attracted her patron; her movements, her whole bearing, and the expression of her half-formed features, all seemed to him to show that here was an originally fine nature struggling against incipient corruption. Moved by one of the incalculable whims of the very wealthy, he determined to try to rescue the unhappy child.
It was not difficult to obtain control of her, as she belonged to no one. He gave her a name, and placed her in one of the best convent schools. Before long her benefactor had the satisfaction of observing that the seeds of evil died away and disappeared. She developed an amiable, rather indolent character, correct and quiet manners, and a rare beauty.
When she grew up he married her. Their married life was peaceful and pleasant; in spite of the great difference in their ages, he had unbounded confidence in her, and she deserved it.
Married people do not live in such close communion in France as they do with us; so that their claims upon each other are not so great, and their disappointments are less bitter.
She was not happy, but contented. Her character lent itself to gratitude. She did not feel the tedium of wealth; on the contrary, she often took an almost childish pleasure in it. But no one could guess that, for her bearing was always full of dignity and repose. People suspected that there was something questionable about her origin, but as no one could answer questions they left off asking them. One has so much else to think of in Paris.
She had forgotten her past. She had forgotten it just as we have forgotten the roses, the ribbons, and faded letters of our youth—because we never think about them. They lie locked up in a drawer which we never open. And yet, if we happen now and again to east a glance into this secret drawer, we at once notice if a single one of the roses, or the least bit of ribbon, is wanting. For we remember them all to a nicety; the memories are as fresh as ever—as sweet as ever, and as bitter.
It was thus she had forgotten her past—locked it up and thrown away the key.
But at night she sometimes dreamed frightful things. She could once more feel the old witch with whom she lived shaking her by the shoulder, and driving her out in the cold mornings to work at her artificial flowers.
Then she would jump up in her bed, and stare out into the darkness in the most deadly fear. But presently she would touch the silk coverlet and the soft pillows; her fingers would follow the rich carvings of her luxurious bed; and while sleepy little child-angels slowly drew aside the heavy dream-curtain, she tasted in deep draughts the peculiar, indescribable well-being we feel when we discover that an evil and horrible dream was a dream and nothing more.
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Leaning back among the soft cushions, she drove to the great ball at the Russian ambassador's. The nearer they got to their destination the slower became the pace, until the carriage reached the regular queue, where it dragged on at a foot-pace.
In the wide square in front of the hôtel, brilliantly lighted with torches and with gas, a great crowd of people had gathered. Not only passers-by who had stopped to look on, but more especially workmen, loafers, poor women, and ladies of questionable appearance, stood in serried ranks on both sides of the row of carriages. Humorous remarks and coarse witticisms in the vulgarest Parisian dialect hailed down upon the passing carriages and their occupants.
She heard words which she had not heard for many years, and she blushed at the thought that she was perhaps the only one in this whole long line of carriages who understood these low expressions of the dregs of Paris.
She began to look at the faces around her: it seemed to her as if she knew them all. She knew what they thought, what was passing in each of these tightly-packed heads; and little by little a host of memories streamed in upon her. She fought against them as well as she could, but she was not herself this evening.
She had not, then, lost the key to the secret drawer; reluctantly she drew it out, and the memories overpowered her.
She remembered how often she herself, still almost a child, had devoured with greedy eyes the fine ladies who drove in splendour to balls or theatres; how often she had cried in bitter envy over the flowers she laboriously pieced together to make others beautiful. Here she saw the same greedy eyes, the same inextinguishable, savage envy.
And the dark, earnest men who scanned the equipages with half-contemptuous, half-threatening looks—she knew them all.
Had not she herself, as a little girl, lain in a corner and listened, wide-eyed, to their talk about the injustice of life, the tyranny of the rich, and the rights of the labourer, which he had only to reach out his hand to seize?
She knew that they hated everything—the sleek horses, the dignified coachmen, the shining carriages, and, most of all, the people who sat within them—these insatiable vampires, these ladies, whose ornaments for the night cost more gold than any one of them could earn by the work of a whole lifetime.
And as she looked along the line of carriages, as it dragged on slowly through the crowd, another memory flashed into her mind—a half-forgotten picture from her school-life in the convent.
She suddenly came to think of the story of Pharaoh and his war-chariots following the children of Israel through the Red Sea. She saw the waves, which she had always imagined red as blood, piled up like a wall on both sides of the Egyptians.
Then the voice of Moses sounded. He stretched out his staff over the waters, and the Red Sea waves hurtled together and swallowed up Pharaoh and all his chariots.
She knew that the wall which stood on each side of her was wilder and more rapacious than the waves of the sea; she knew that it needed only a voice, a Moses, to set all this human sea in motion, hurling it irresistibly onward until it should sweep away all the glory of wealth and greatness in its blood-red waves.
Her heart throbbed, and she crouched trembling into the corner of the carriage. But it was not with fear: it was so that those without should not see her—for she was ashamed to meet their eyes.
For the first time in her life, her good-fortune appeared to her in the light of an injustice, a thing to blush for.
Was she in her right place, in this soft-cushioned carriage, among these tyrants and blood-suckers? Should she not rather be out there in the billowing mass, among the children of hate?
Half-forgotten thoughts and feelings thrust up their heads like beasts of prey which have long lain bound. She felt strange and homeless in her glittering life, and thought with a sort of demoniac longing of the horrible places from which she had risen.
She seized her rich lace shawl; there came over her a wild desire to destroy, to tear something to pieces; but at this moment the carriage turned into the gate-way of the hôtel.
The footman tore open the door, and with her gracious smile, her air of quiet, aristocratic distinction, she alighted.
A young attaché rushed forward, and was happy when she took his arm, still more enraptured when he thought he noticed an unusual gleam in her eyes, and in the seventh heaven when he felt her arm tremble.
Full of pride and hope, he led her with sedulous politeness up the shining marble steps.
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"Tell me, belle dame, what good fairy endowed you in your cradle with the marvellous gift of transforming everything you touch into something new and strange. The very flower in your hair has a charm, as though it were wet with the fresh morning dew. And when you dance it seems as though the floor swayed and undulated to the rhythm of your footsteps."
The Count was himself quite astonished at this long and felicitous compliment, for as a rule he did not find it easy to express himself coherently. He expected, too, that his beautiful partner would show her appreciation of his effort.
But he was disappointed. She leaned over the balcony, where they were enjoying the cool evening air after the dance, and gazed out over the crowd and the still-advancing carriages. She seemed not to have understood the Count's great achievement; at least he could only hear her whisper the inexplicable word, "Pharaoh."
He was on the point of remonstrating with her, when she turned round, made a step towards the salon, stopped right in front of him, and looked him in the face with great, wonderful eyes, such as the Count had never seen before.
"I scarcely think, Monsieur le Comte, that any good fairy—perhaps not even a cradle—was present at my birth. But in what you say of my flowers and my dancing your penetration has led you to a great discovery. I will tell you the secret of the fresh morning dew which lies on the flowers. It is the tears, Monsieur le Comte, which envy and shame, disappointment and remorse, have wept over them. And if you seem to feel the floor swaying as we dance, that is because it trembles under the hatred of millions."
She had spoken with her customary repose, and with a friendly bow she disappeared into the salon.
• • • • • • • • •
The Count remained rooted to the spot. He cast a glance over the crowd outside. It was a sight he had often seen, and he had made sundry more or less trivial witticisms about the "many-headed monster." But to-night it struck him for the first time that this monster was, after all, the most unpleasant neighbour for a palace one could possibly imagine.
Strange and disturbing thoughts whirled in the brain of Monsieur le Comte, where they found plenty of space to gyrate. He was entirely thrown off his balance, and it was not till after the next polka that his placidity returned.
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