C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
David and Elise
By Mary Augusta Ward (18511920)
He dropped on one knee, hardly knowing what he did. Most of the students about had left their work for a while; no one was in sight but a gardien whose back was turned to them, and a young man in the remote distance. He picked up a brush she had let fall, pressed it into her reluctant hand, and laid his forehead against the hand for an instant.
“You misunderstand me,” he said, with a broken, breathless utterance. “You are quite wrong—quite mistaken. There are not such thoughts in me as you think. The world matters nothing to me either. I am alone too; I have always been alone. You meant everything that was heavenly and kind—you must have meant it. I am a stupid idiot! But I could be your friend—if you would permit it.”
He spoke with an extraordinary timidity and slowness. He forgot all his scruples, all pride—everything. As he knelt there, so close to her delicate slimness, to the curls on her white neck, to the quivering lips and great defiant eyes, she seemed to him once more a being of another clay from himself—beyond any criticism his audacity could form. He dared hardly touch her; and in his heart there swelled the first irrevocable wave of young passion.
She raised her hand impetuously and began to paint again. But suddenly a tear dropped on to her knee. She brushed it away, and her wild smile broke.
“Bah!” she said: “what a scene, what a pair of children! What was it all about? I vow I haven’t an idea. You are an excellent farceur, Monsieur David! One can see well that you have read George Sand.”
He sat down on a little three-legged stool she had brought with her, and held her box open on his knee. In a minute or two they were talking as though nothing had happened. She was giving him a fresh lecture on Velasquez, and he had resumed his rôle of pupil and listener. But their eyes avoided each other; and once, when in taking a tube from the box he held, her fingers brushed against his hand, she flushed involuntarily, and moved her chair a foot further away.
“Who is that?” she asked, suddenly looking round the corner of her canvas. “Mon Dieu! M. Regnault! How does he come here? They told me he was at Granada.”
She sat transfixed, a joyous excitement illuminating every feature. And there, a few yards from them, examining the Rembrandt ‘Supper at Emmaüs’ with a minute and absorbed attention, was the young man he had noticed in the distance a few minutes before. As Elise spoke, the new-comer apparently heard his name, and turned. He put up his eyeglass, smiled, and took off his hat.
“Mademoiselle Delaunay! I find you where I left you, at the feet of the master! Always at work! You are indefatigable. Taranne tells me great things of you. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘if the men would work like the women!’ I assure you, he makes us smart for it. May I look? Good—very good! a great improvement on last year; stronger, more knowledge in it. That hand wants study—but you will soon put it right. Ah, Velasquez! That a man should be great, one can bear that,—but so great! It is an offense to the rest of us mortals. But one cannot realize him out of Madrid. I often sigh for the months I spent copying in the Museo. There is a repose of soul in copying a great master—don’t you find it? One rests from one’s own efforts awhile; the spirit of the master descends into yours, gently, profoundly.”
He stood beside her, smiling kindly, his hat and gloves in his hands, perfectly dressed, an air of the great world about his look and bearing which differentiated him wholly from all other persons whom David had yet seen in Paris. In physique too he was totally unlike the ordinary Parisian type. He was a young athlete,—vigorous, robust, broad-shouldered, tanned by sun and wind. Only his blue eye—so subtle, melancholy, passionate—revealed the artist and the thinker.
Elise was evidently transported by his notice of her. She talked to him eagerly of his pictures in the Salon; especially of a certain ‘Salome,’ which, as David presently gathered, was the sensation of the year. She raved about the qualities of it,—the words “color,” “poignancy,” “force,” recurring in the quick phrases.
“No one talks of your success now, monsieur. It is another word. C’est la gloire elle-même qui vous parle à l’oreille!”
As she let fall the most characteristic of all French nouns, a slight tremor passed across the young man’s face. But the look which succeeded it was one of melancholy; the blue eyes took a steely hardness.
“Perhaps a lying spirit, mademoiselle. And what matter, so long as everything one does disappoints oneself? What a tyrant is art! insatiable, adorable! You know it. We serve our king on our knees, and he deals us the most miserly gifts.”
“It is the service itself repays,” she said eagerly, her chest heaving.
“True!—most true! But what a struggle always! No rest—no content. And there is no other way. One must seek, grope, toil—then produce rapidly—in a flash—throw what you have done behind you—and so on to the next problem, and the next. There is no end to it; there never can be. But you hardly came here this morning, I imagine, mademoiselle, to hear me prate! I wish you good-day and good-by. I came over for a look at the Salon; but to-morrow I go back to Spain. I can’t breathe now for long away from my sun and my South! Adieu, mademoiselle. I am told your prospects, when the voting comes on, are excellent. May the gods inspire the jury.”
He bowed, smiled, and passed on, carrying his lion-head and kingly presence down the gallery, which had now filled up again; and where, so David noticed, person after person turned as he came near, with the same flash of recognition and pleasure he had seen upon Elise’s face.
A wild jealousy of the young conqueror invaded the English lad.
“Who is he?” he asked.
Elise, woman-like, divined him in a moment. She gave him a sidelong glance, and went back to her painting.
“That,” she said quietly, “is Henri Regnault. Ah, you know nothing of our painters. I can’t make you understand. For me he is a young god; there is a halo round his head. He has grasped his fame—the fame we poor creatures are all thirsting for. It began last year with the Prim—General Prim on horseback—oh, magnificent! a passion! an energy! This year it is the ‘Salome.’ About—Gautier—all the world—have lost their heads over it. If you go to see it at the Salon, you will have to wait your turn. Crowds go every day for nothing else. Of course there are murmurs. They say the study of Fortuny has done him harm. Nonsense! People discuss him because he is becoming a master; no one discusses the nonentities. They have no enemies. Then he is a sculptor, musician, athlete,—well born besides,—all the world is his friend. But with it all so simple—bon camarade even for poor scrawlers like me. Je l’adore!”
“So it seems,” said David.
The girl smiled over her painting. But after a bit she looked up with a seriousness—nay, a bitterness—in her siren’s face, which astonished him.
“It is not amusing to take you in,—you are too ignorant. What do you suppose Henri Regnault matters to me? His world is as far above mine as Velasquez’s art is above my art. But how can a foreigner understand our shades and grades? Nothing but success, but la gloire, could ever lift me into his world. Then indeed I should be everybody’s equal, and it would matter to nobody that I had been a Bohemian and a déclassée.”
She gave a little sigh of excitement, and threw her head back to look at her picture. David watched her.
“I thought,” he said ironically, “that a few minutes ago you were all for Bohemia. I did not suspect these social ambitions.”
“All women have them—all artists deny them,” she said recklessly. “There, explain me as you like, Monsieur David. But don’t read my riddle too soon, or I shall bore you.—Allow me to ask you a question.”
She laid down her brushes and looked at him with the utmost gravity. His heart beat; he bent forward.
“Are you ever hungry, Monsieur David?”
He sprang up, half enraged, half ashamed.
“Where can we get some food?”
“That is my affair,” she said, putting up her brushes. “Be humble, monsieur, and take a lesson in Paris.”
And out they went together, he beside himself with delight of accompanying her, and proudly carrying her box and satchel. How her little feet slipped in and out of her pretty dress! how, as they stood on the top of the great flight of stairs leading down into the court of the Louvre, the wind from outside blew back the curls from her brow, and ruffled the violets in her hat, the black lace about her tiny throat! It was an enchantment to follow and to serve her. She led him through the Tuileries Gardens and the Place de la Concorde to the Champs Elysées. The fountains leapt in the sun; the river blazed between the great white buildings of its banks; to the left was the gilded dome of the Invalides and the mass of the Corps Législatif; while in front of them rose the long ascent to the Arc de l’Étoile, set in vivid green on either hand. Everywhere was space, glitter, magnificence. The gayety of Paris entered into the Englishman and took possession.
Presently, as they wandered up the Champs Elysées, they passed a great building to the left. Elise stopped and clasped her hands in front of her with a little nervous spasmodic gesture.
“That,” she said, “is the Salon. My fate lies there. When we have had some food, I will take you in to see.”
She led him a little further up the avenue; then took him aside through cunningly devised labyrinths of green till they came upon a little café restaurant among the trees, where people sat under an awning, and the wind drove the spray of a little fountain hither and thither among the bushes. It was gay, foreign, romantic, unlike anything David had ever seen in his northern world. He sat down, with Barbier’s stories running in his head. Mademoiselle Delaunay was George Sand—independent, gifted, on the road to fame like that great déclassée of old; and he was her friend and comrade,—a humble soldier, a camp follower, in the great army of letters.
Their meal was of the lightest. This descent on the Champs Elysées had been a freak on Elise’s part, who wished to do nothing so banal as to take her companion to the Palais Royal. But the restaurant she had chosen, though of a much humbler kind than those which the rich tourist commonly associates with this part of Paris, was still a good deal more expensive than she had rashly supposed. She opened her eyes gravely at the charges; abused herself extravagantly for a lack of savoir vivre: and both with one accord declared that it was too hot to eat. But upon such eggs and such green peas as they did allow themselves—a portion of each, scrupulously shared—David at any rate was prepared to live to the end of the chapter.
Afterwards, over the coffee and the cigarettes,—Elise taking her part in both,—they lingered for one of those hours which make the glamour of youth. Confidences flowed fast between them. His French grew suppler and more docile, answered more truly to the individuality behind it. He told her of his bringing-up, of his wandering with the sheep on the mountains, of his reading among the heather, of ’Lias and his visions, of Hannah’s cruelties and Louie’s tempers,—that same idyl of peasant life to which Dora had listened some months before. But how differently told! Each different listener changes the tale, readjusts the tone. But here also the tale pleased. Elise, for all her leanings towards new schools in art, had the Romantic’s imagination, and the Romantic’s relish for things foreign and unaccustomed. The English boy and his story seemed to her both charming and original. Her artist’s eye followed the lines of the ruffled black head, and noted the red-brown of the skin. She felt a wish to draw him,—a wish which had entirely vanished in the case of Louie.
“Your sister has taken a dislike to me,” she said to him once, coolly. “And for me, I am afraid of her. Ah! and she broke my glass!”
She shivered, and a look of anxiety and depression invaded her small face. He guessed that she was thinking of her pictures, and began timidly to speak to her about them. When they returned to the world of art, his fluency left him; he felt crushed beneath the weight of his own ignorance and her accomplishment.
“Come and see them!” she said, springing up. “I am tired of my Infanta. Let her be awhile. Come to the Salon, and I will show you ‘Salome.’ Or are you sick of pictures? What do you want to see? Ça m’est égal. I can always go back to my work.”
She spoke with a cavalier lightness which teased and piqued him.
“I wish to go where you go,” he said flushing; “to see what you see.”
She shook her little head.
“No compliments, Monsieur David. We are serious persons, you and I. Well, then, for a couple of hours, soyons camarades!”