IN THE STUDIO
An old gentleman was greeting him with an amiable smile.
"I am the father of Julio."
And he walked into the apartment with the confidence of a man entirely familiar with his surroundings.
By good luck, the artist was alone, and was not obliged to tear frantically from one end of the room to the other, hiding the traces of convivial company; but he was a little slow in regaining his self-control. He had heard so much about Don Marcelo and his bad temper, that he was very uncomfortable at this unexpected appearance in the studio. . . . What could the fearful man want?
His tranquillity was restored after a furtive, appraising glance. His friend's father had aged greatly since the beginning of the war. He no longer had that air of tenacity and ill-humor that had made him unapproachable. His eyes were sparkling with childish glee; his hands were trembling slightly, and his back was bent. Argensola, who had always dodged him in the street and had thrilled with fear when sneaking up the stairway in the avenue home, now felt a sudden confidence. The transformed old man was beaming on him like a comrade, and making excuses to justify his visit.
He had wished to see his son's home. Poor old man! He was drawn thither by the same attraction which leads the lover to lessen his solitude by haunting the places that his beloved has frequented. The letters from Julio were not enough; he needed to see his old abode, to be on familiar terms with the objects which had surrounded him, to breathe the same air, to chat with the young man who was his boon companion.
His fatherly glance now included Argensola. . . . "A very interesting fellow, that Argensola!" And as he thought this, he forgot completely that, without knowing him, he had been accustomed to refer to him as "shameless," just because he was sharing his son's prodigal life.
Desnoyers' glance roamed delightedly around the studio. He knew well these tapestries and furnishings, all the decorations of the former owner. He easily remembered everything that he had ever bought, in spite of the fact that they were so many. His eyes then sought the personal effects, everything that would call the absent occupant to mind; and he pored over the miserably executed paintings, the unfinished dabs which filled all the corners.
Were they all Julio's? . . . Many of the canvases belonged to Argensola, but affected by the old man's emotion, the artist displayed a marvellous generosity. Yes, everything was Julio's handiwork . . . and the father went from canvas to canvas, halting admiringly before the vaguest daubs as though he could almost detect signs of genius in their nebulous confusion.
"You think he has talent, really?" he asked in a tone that implored a favorable reply. "I always thought him very intelligent . . . a little of the diable, perhaps, but character changes with years. . . . Now he is an altogether different man."
And he almost wept at hearing the Spaniard, with his ready, enthusiastic speech, lauding the departed "diable," graphically setting forth the way in which his great genius was going to take the world when his turn should come.
The painter of souls finally worked himself up into feeling as much affected as the father, and began to admire this old Frenchman with a certain remorse, not wishing to remember how he had ranted against him not so very long ago. What injustice! . . .
Don Marcelo clasped his hand like an old comrade. All of his son's friends were his friends. He knew the life that young men lived. . . . If at any time, he should be in any difficulties, if he needed an allowance so as to keep on with his painting--there he was, anxious to help him! He then and there invited him to dine at his home that very night, and if he would care to come every evening, so much the better. He would eat a family dinner, entirely informal. War had brought about a great many changes, but he would always be as welcome to the intimacy of the hearth as though he were in his father's home.
Then he spoke of Spain, in order to place himself on a more congenial footing with the artist. He had never been there but once, and then only for a short time; but after the war, he was going to know it better. His father-in-law was a Spaniard, his wife had Spanish blood, and in his home the language of the family was always Castilian. Ah, Spain, the country with a noble past and illustrious men! . . .
Argensola had a strong suspicion that if he had been a native of any other land, the old gentleman would have praised it in the same way. All this affection was but a reflex of his love for his absent son, but it so pleased the impressionable fellow that he almost embraced Don Marcelo when he took his departure.
After that, his visits to the studio were very frequent. The artist was obliged to recommend his friends to take a good long walk after lunch, abstaining from reappearing in the rue de la Pompe until nightfall. Sometimes, however, Don Marcelo would unexpectedly present himself in the morning, and then the soulful impressionist would have to scurry from place to place, hiding here, concealing there, in order that his workroom should preserve its appearance of virtuous labor.
"Youth . . . youth!" the vistor would murmur with a smile of tolerance.
And he actually had to make an effort to recall the dignity of his years, in order not to ask Argensola to present him to the fair fugitives whose presence he suspected in the interior rooms. Perhaps they had been his boy's friends, too. They represented a part of his past, anyway, and that was enough to make him presume that they had great charms which made them interesting.
These surprises, with their upsetting consequences, finally made the painter rather regret this new friendship; and the invitations to dinner which he was constantly receiving bored him, too. He found the Desnoyers table most excellent, but too tedious--for the father and mother could talk of nothing but their absent son. Chichi scarcely looked at her brother's friend. Her attention was entirely concentrated on the war. The irregularity in the mails was exasperating her so that she began composing protests to the government whenever a few days passed by without bringing any letter from sub-Lieutenant Lacour.
Argensola excused himself on various pretexts from continuing to dine in the avenue Victor Hugo. It pleased him far more to haunt the cheap restaurants with his female flock. His host accepted his negatives with good-natured resignation.
"Not to-day, either?"
And in order to compensate for his guest's non-appearance, he would present himself at the studio earlier than ever on the day following.
It was an exquisite pleasure for the doting father to let the time slip by seated on the divan which still seemed to guard the very hollow made by Julio's body, gazing at the canvases covered with color by his brush, toasting his toes by the beat of a stove which roared so cosily in the profound, conventual silence. It certainly was an agreeable refuge, full of memories in the midst of monotonous Paris so saddened by the war that he could not meet a friend who was not preoccupied with his own troubles.
His former purchasing dissipations had now lost all charm for him. The Hotel Drouot no longer tempted him. At that time, the goods of German residents, seized by the government, were being auctioned off;--a felicitous retaliation for the enforced journey which the fittings of the castle of Villeblanche had taken on the road to Berlin; but the agents told him in vain of the few competitors which he would now meet. He no longer felt attracted by these extraordinary bargains. Why buy anything more? . . . Of what use was such useless stuff? Whenever he thought of the hard life of millions of men in the open field, he felt a longing to lead an ascetic life. He was beginning to hate the ostentatious splendors of his home on the avenue Victor Hugo. He now recalled without a regretful pang, the destruction of the castle. No, he was far better off there . . . and "there" was always the studio of Julio.
Argensola began to form the habit of working in the presence of Don Marcelo. He knew that the resolute soul abominated inactive people, so, under the contagious influence of dominant will-power, he began several new pieces. Desnoyers would follow with interest the motions of his brush and accept all the explanations of the soulful delineator. For himself, he always preferred the old masters, and in his bargains had acquired the work of many a dead artist; but the fact that Julio had thought as his partner did was now enough for the devotee of the antique and made him admit humbly all the Spaniard's superior theories.
The artist's laborious zeal was always of short duration. After a few moments, he always found that he preferred to rest on the divan and converse with his guest.
The first subject, of course, was the absentee. They would repeat fragments of the letters they had received, and would speak of the past with the most discreet allusions. The painter described Julio's life before the war as an existence dedicated completely to art. The father ignored the inexactitude of such words, and gratefully accepted the lie as a proof of friendship. Argensola was such a clever comrade, never, in his loftiest verbal flights, making the slightest reference to Madame Laurier.
The old gentleman was often thinking about her nowadays, for he had seen her in the street giving her arm to her husband, now recovered from his wounds. The illustrious Lacour had informed him with great satisfaction of their reconciliation. The engineer had lost but one eye. Now he was again at the head of his factory requisitioned by the government for the manufacture of shells. He was a Captain, and was wearing two decorations of honor. The senator did not know exactly how this unexpected agreement had come about. He had one day seen them coming home together, looking affectionately at each other, in complete oblivion of the past.
"Who remembers things that happened before the war said the politic sage. "They and their friends have completely forgotten all about their divorce. Nowadays we are all living a new existence. . . . I believe that the two are happier than ever before."
Desnoyers had had a presentiment of this happiness when he saw them together. And the man of inflexible morality who was, the year before, anathematizing his son's behavior toward Laurier, considering it the most unpardonable of his adventures, now felt a certain indignation in seeing Marguerite devoted to her husband, and talking to him with such affectionate interest. This matrimonial felicity seemed to him like the basest ingratitude. A woman who had had such an influence over the life of Julio! . . . Could she thus easily forget her love? . . .
The two had passed on as though they did not recognize him. Perhaps Captain Laurier did not see very clearly, but she had looked at him frankly and then hastily averted her eyes so as to evade his greeting. . . . The old man felt sad over such indifference, not on his own account, but on his son's. Poor Julio! . . . The unbending parent, in complete mental immorality, found himself lamenting this indifference as something monstrous.
The war was the other topic of conversation during the afternoons passed in the studio. Argensola was not now stuffing his pockets with printed sheets as at the beginning of hostilities. A serene and resigned calm had succeeded the excitement of those first moments when the people were daily looking for miraculous interventions. All the periodicals were saying about the same thing. He was content with the official report, and he had learned to wait for that document without impatience, foreseeing that with but few exceptions, it would say the same thing as the day before.
The fever of the first months, with its illusions and optimisms, now appeared to Argensola somewhat chimerical. Those not actually engaged in the war were returning gradually to their habitual occupations. Life had recovered its regular rhythm. "One must live!" said the people, and the struggle for existence filled their thoughts with its immediate urgency. Those whose relatives were in the army, were still thinking of them, but their occupations were so blunting the edge of memory, that they were becoming accustomed to their absence, regarding the unusual as the normal condition. At first, the war made sleep out of the question, food impossible to swallow, and embittered every pleasure with its funereal pall. Now the shops were slowly opening, money was in circulation, and people were able to laugh; they talked of the great calamity, but only at certain hours, as something that was going to be long, very long and would exact great resignation to its inevitable fatalism.
"Humanity accustoms itself easily to trouble," said Argensola, "provided that the trouble lasts long enough. . . . In this lies our strength."
Don Marcelo was not in sympathy with the general resignation. The war was going to be much shorter than they were all imagining. His enthusiasm had settled on a speedy termination;--within the next three months, the next Spring probably; if peace were not declared in the Spring, it surely would be in the Summer.
A new talker took part in these conversations. Desnoyers had become acquainted with the Russian neighbor of whom Argensola had so frequently spoken. Since this odd personage had also known his son, that was enough to make Tchernoff arouse his interest.
In normal times, he would have kept him at a distance. The millionaire was a great believer in law and order. He abominated revolutionists, with the instinctive fear of all the rich who have built up a fortune and remember their humble beginnings. Tchernoff's socialism and nationality brought vividly to his mind a series of feverish images--bombs, daggers, stabbings, deserved expiations on the gallows, and exile to Siberia. No, he was not desirable as a friend. . . .
But now Don Marcelo was experiencing an abrupt reversal of his convictions regarding alien ideas. He had seen so much! . . . The revolting proceedings of the invasion, the unscrupulous methods of the German chiefs, the tranquillity with which their submarines were sinking boats filled with defenseless passengers, the deeds of the aviators who were hurling bombs upon unguarded cities, destroying women and children--all this was causing the events of revolutionary terrorism which, years ago, used to arouse his wrath, to sink into relative unimportance.
"And to think," he said "that we used to be as infuriated as though the world were coming to an end, just because someone threw a bomb at a grandee!"
Those titled victims had had certain reprehensible qualities which had justified their execution. They had died in consequence of acts which they undertook, knowing well what the punishment would be. They had brought retribution on themselves without trying to evade it, rarely taking any precautions. While the terrorists of this war! . . .
With the violence of his imperious character, the old conservative now swung to the opposite extreme.
"The true anarchists are yet on top," he said with an ironical laugh. "Those who terrified us formerly, all put together, were but a few miserable creatures. . . . In a few seconds, these of our day kill more innocent people than those others did in thirty years."
The gentleness of Tchernoff, his original ideas, his incoherencies of thought, bounding from reflection to word without any preparation, finally won Don Marcelo so completely over that he formed the habit of consulting him about all his doubts. His admiration made him, too, overlook the source of certain bottles with which Argensola sometimes treated his neighbor. He was delighted to have Tchernoff consume these souvenirs of the time when he was living at swords' points with his son.
After sampling the wine from the avenue Victor Hugo, the Russian would indulge in a visionary loquacity similar to that of the night when he evoked the fantastic cavalcade of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
What his new convert most admired was his facility for making things clear, and fixing them in the imagination. The battle of the Marne with its subsequent combats and the course of both armies were events easily explained. . . . If the French only had not been so fatigued after their triumph of the Marne! . . .
"But human powers," continued Tchernoff, "have their limits, and the French soldier, with all his enthusiasm, is a man like the rest. In the first place, the most rapid of marches from the East to the North, in order to resist the invasion of Belgium; then the combats; then the swift retreat that they might not be surrounded; finally a seven days' battle--and all this in a period of three weeks, no more. . . . In their moment of triumph, the victors lacked the legs to follow up their advantage, and they lacked the cavalry to pursue the fugitives. Their beasts were even more exhausted than the men. When those who were retreating found that they were being spurred on with lessening tenacity, they had stretched themselves, half-dead with fatigue, on the field, excavating the ground and forming a refuge for themselves. The French also flung themselves down, scraping the soil together so as not to lose what they had gained. . . . And in this way began the war of the trenches."
Then each line, with the intention of wrapping itself around that of the enemy, had gone on prolonging itself toward the Northeast, and from these successive stretchings had resulted the double course toward the sea--forming the greatest battle front ever known to history.
When Don Marcelo with optimistic enthusiasm announced the end of the war in the following Spring or Summer--in four months at the outside--the Russian shook his head.
"It will be long . . . very long. It is a new war, the genuine modern warfare. The Germans began hostilities in the old way as though they had observed nothing since 1870--a war of involved movements, of battles in the open field, the same as Moltke might have planned, imitating Napoleon. They were desirous of bringing it to a speedy conclusion, and were sure of triumph. Why employ new methods? . . . But the encounter of the Marne twisted their plans, making them shift from the aggressive to the defensive. They then brought into service all that the war staff had learned in the campaigns of the Japanese and Russians, beginning the war of the trenches, the subterranean struggle which is the logical outcome of the reach and number of shots of the modern armament. The conquest of half a mile of territory to-day stands for more than did the assault of a stone fortress a century ago. Neither side is going to make any headway for a long time. Perhaps they may never make a definite advance. The war is bound to be long and tedious, like the athletic conquests between opponents who are equally matched."
"But it will have to come to an end, sometime," interpolated Desnoyers.
"Undoubtedly, but who knows when? . . . And in what condition will they both be when it is all over?" . . .
He was counting upon a rapid finale when it was least expected, through the exhaustion of one of the contestants, carefully dissimulated until the last moment.
"Germany will be vanquished," he added with firm conviction. "I do not know when nor how, but she will fall logically. She failed in her master-stroke in not entering Paris and overcoming its opposition. All the trumps in her pack of cards were then played. She did not win, but continues playing the game because she holds many cards, and she will prolong it for a long time to come. . . . But what she could not do at first, she will never be able to do."
For Tchernoff, the final defeat did not mean the destruction of Germany nor the annihilation of the German people.
"Excessive patriotism irritates me," he pursued. "Hearing people form plans for the definite extinction of Germany seems to me like listening to the Pan-Germanists of Berlin when they talk of dividing up the continents."
Then he summed up his opinion.
"Imperialism will have to be crushed for the sake of the tranquillity of the world; the great war machine which menaces the peace of nations will have to be suppressed. Since 1870, we have all been living in dread of it. For forty years, the war has been averted, but in all that time, what apprehension!" . . .
What was most irritating Tchernoff was the moral lesson born of this situation which had ended by overwhelming the world--the glorification of power, the sanctification of success, the triumph of materialism, the respect for the accomplished fact, the mockery of the noblest sentiments as though they were merely sonorous and absurd phrases, the reversal of moral values . . . a philosophy of bandits which pretended to be the last word of progress, and was no more than a return to despotism, violence, and the barbarity of the most primitive epochs of history.
While he was longing for the suppression of the representatives of this tendency, he would not, therefore, demand the extermination of the German people.
"This nation has great merits jumbled with bad conditions inherited from a not far-distant, barbarous past. It possesses the genius of organization and work, and is able to lend great service to humanity. . . . But first it is necessary to give it a douche--the douche of downfall. The Germans are mad with pride and their madness threatens the security of the world. When those who have poisoned them with the illusion of universal hegemony have disappeared, when misfortune has freshened their imagination and transformed them into a community of humans, neither superior nor inferior to the rest of mankind, they will become a tolerant people, useful . . . and who knows but they may even prove sympathetic!"
According to Tchernoff, there was not in existence to-day a more dangerous nation. Its political organization was converting it into a warrior horde, educated by kicks and submitted to continual humiliations in order that the willpower which always resists discipline might be completely nullified.
"It is a nation where all receive blows and desire to give them to those lower down. The kick that the Kaiser gives is transmitted from back to back down to the lowest rung of the social ladder. The blows begin in the school and are continued in the barracks, forming part of the education. The apprenticeship of the Prussian Crown Princes has always consisted in receiving fisticuffs and cowhidings from their progenitor, the king. The Kaiser beats his children, the officer his soldiers, the father his wife and children, the schoolmaster his pupils, and when the superior is not able to give blows, he subjects those under him to the torment of moral insult."
On this account, when they abandoned their ordinary avocations, taking up arms in order to fall upon another human group, they did so with implacable ferocity.
"Each one of them," continued the Russian, "carries on his back the marks of kicks, and when his turn comes, he seeks consolation in passing them on to the unhappy creatures whom war puts into his power. This nation of war-lords, as they love to call themselves, aspires to lordship, but outside of the country. Within it, are the ones who least appreciate human dignity and, therefore, long vehemently to spread their dominant will over the face of the earth, passing from lackeys to lords."
Suddenly Don Marcelo stopped going with such frequency to the studio. He was now haunting the home and office of the senator, because this friend had upset his tranquillity. Lacour had been much depressed since the heir to the family glory had broken through the protecting paternal net in order to go to war.
One night, while dining with the Desnoyers family, an idea popped into his head which filled him with delight. "Would you like to see your son?" He needed to see Rene and had begun negotiating for a permit from headquarters which would allow him to visit the front. His son belonged to the same army division as Julio; perhaps their camps were rather far apart, but an automobile makes many revolutions before it reaches the end of its journey.
It was not necessary to say more. Desnoyers instantly felt the most overmastering desire to see his boy, since, for so many months, he had had to content himself with reading his letters and studying the snap shot which one of his comrades had made of his soldier son.
From that time on, he besieged the senator as though he were a political supporter desiring an office. He visited him in the mornings in his home, invited him to dinner every evening, and hunted him down in the salons of the Luxembourg. Before the first word of greeting could be exchanged, his eyes were formulating the same interrogation. . . . "When will you get that permit?"
The great man could only reply by lamenting the indifference of the military department toward the civilian element; it always had been inimical toward parliamentarism.
"Besides, Joffre is showing himself most unapproachable; he does not encourage the curious. . . . To-morrow I will see the President."
A few days later, he arrived at the house in the avenue Victor Hugo, with an expression of radiant satisfaction that filled Don Marcelo with joy.
"It has come?"
"It has come. . . . We start the day after to-morrow."
Desnoyers went the following afternoon to the studio in the rue de la Pompe.
"I am going to-morrow!"
The artist was very eager to accompany him. Would it not be possible for him to go, too, as secretary to the senator? . . . Don Marcelo smiled benevolently. The authorization was only for Lacour and one companion. He was the one who was going to pose as secretary, valet or utility man to his future relative-in-law.
At the end of the afternoon, he left the studio, accompanied to the elevator by the lamentations of Argensola. To think that he could not join that expedition! . . . He believed that he had lost the opportunity to paint his masterpiece.
Just outside of his home, he met Tchernoff. Don Marcelo was in high good humor. The certainty that he was soon going to see his son filled him with boyish good spirits. He almost embraced the Russian in spite of his slovenly aspect, his tragic beard and his enormous hat which made every one turn to look after him.
At the end of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe stood forth against a sky crimsoned by the sunset. A red cloud was floating around the monument, reflected on its whiteness with purpling palpitations.
Desnoyers recalled the four horsemen, and all that Argensola had told him before presenting him to the Russian.
"Blood!" shouted jubilantly. "All the sky seems to be blood-red. . . . It is the apocalyptic beast who has received his death-wound. Soon we shall see him die."
Tchernoff smiled, too, but his was a melancholy smile.
"No; the beast does not die. It is the eternal companion of man. It hides, spouting blood, forty . . . sixty . . . a hundred years, but eventually it reappears. All that we can hope is that its wound may be long and deep, that it may remain hidden so long that the generation that now remembers it may never see it again."