While descending the wide staircase of the club heated like a conservatory by the stove the Baron de Mordiane had left his fur-coat open; therefore, when the huge street-door closed behind him he felt a shiver of intense cold run through him, one of those sudden and painful shivers which make us feel sad, as if we were stricken with grief. Moreover, he had lost some money, and his stomach for some time past had troubled him, no longer permitting him to eat as he liked.
He went back to his own residence; and, all of a sudden, the thought of his great, empty apartment, of his footman asleep in the ante-chamber, of the dressing-room in which the water kept tepid for the evening toilet simmered pleasantly under the chafing-dish heated by gas, and the bed, spacious, antique, and solemn-looking, like a mortuary couch, caused another chill, more mournful still than that of the icy atmosphere, to penetrate to the bottom of his heart, the inmost core of his flesh.
For some years past he had felt weighing down on him that load of solitude which sometimes crushes old bachelors. Formerly, he had been strong, lively, and gay, giving all his days to sport and all his nights to festive gatherings. Now, he had grown dull, and no longer took pleasure in anything. Exercise fatigued him; suppers and even dinners made him ill; women annoyed him as much as they had formerly amused him.
The monotony of evenings all like each other, of the same friends met again in the same place, at the club, of the same game with a good hand and a run of luck, of the same talk on the same topics, of the same witty remarks by the same lips, of the same jokes on the same themes, of the same scandals about the same women, disgusted him so much as to make him feel at times a veritable inclination to commit suicide. He could no longer lead this life regular and inane, so commonplace, so frivolous and so dull at the same time, and he felt a longing for something tranquil, restful, comfortable, without knowing what.
He certainly did not think of getting married, for he did not feel in himself sufficient fortitude to submit to the melancholy, the conjugal servitude, to that hateful existence of two beings, who, always together, knew one another so well that one could not utter a word which the other would not anticipate, could not make a single movement which would not be foreseen, could not have any thought or desire or opinion which would not be divined. He considered that a woman could only be agreeable to see again when you know her but slightly, when there is something mysterious and unexplored attached to her, when she remains disquieting, hidden behind a veil. Therefore, what he would require was a family without family-life, wherein he might spend only a portion of his existence; and, again, he was haunted by the recollection of his son.
For the past year he had been constantly thinking of this, feeling an irritating desire springing up within him to see him, to renew acquaintance with him. He had become the father of this child, while still a young man, in the midst of dramatic and touching incidents. The boy dispatched to the South, had been brought up near Marseilles without ever hearing his father’s name.
The latter had at first paid from month to month for the nurture, then for the education and the expense of holidays for the lad, and finally had provided an allowance for him on making a sensible match. A discreet notary had acted as an intermediary without ever disclosing anything.
The Baron de Mordiane accordingly knew merely that a child of his was living somewhere in the neighborhood of Marseilles, that he was looked upon as intelligent and well-educated, that he had married the daughter of an architect and contractor, to whose business he had succeeded. He was also believed to be worth a lot of money.
Why should he not go and see this unknown son without telling his name, in order to form a judgment about him at first and to assure himself that he would be able, in case of necessity, to find an agreeable refuge in this family?
He had acted handsomely towards the young man, had settled a good fortune on him, which had been thankfully accepted. He was, therefore, certain that he would not find himself clashing against any inordinate sense of self-importance; and this thought, this desire, which every day returned to him afresh, of setting out for the South, tantalized him like a kind of itching sensation. A strange self-regarding feeling of affection also attracted him, bringing before his mental vision this pleasant, warm abode by the seaside, where he would meet his young and pretty daughter-inlaw, his grandchildren, with outstretched arms, and his son, who would recall to his memory the charming and short-lived adventure of bygone years. He regretted only having given so much money, and that this money had prospered in the young man’s hands, thus preventing him from any longer presenting himself in the character of a benefactor.
He hurried along, with all these thoughts running through his brain, and the collar of his fur-coat wrapped round his head. Suddenly he made up his mind. A cab was passing; he hailed it, drove home, and, when his valet, just roused from a nap, had opened the door.
“Louis,” said he, “we start tomorrow evening for Marseilles. We’ll remain there perhaps a fortnight. You will make all the necessary preparations.”
The train rushed on past the Rhone with its sandbanks, then through yellow plains, bright villages, and a wide expanse of country, shut in by bare mountains, which rose on the distant horizon.
The Baron de Mordiane, waking up after a night spent in a sleeping compartment of the train, looked at himself, in a melancholy fashion, in the little mirror of his dressing-case. The glaring sun of the South showed him some wrinkles which he had not observed before — a condition of decrepitude unnoticed in the imperfect light of Parisian rooms. He thought, as he examined the corners of his eyes, and saw the rumpled lids, the temples, the skinny forehead:
“Damn it, I’ve not merely got the gloss taken off — I’ve become quite an old fogy.”
And his desire for rest suddenly increased, with a vague yearning, born in him for the first time, to take his grandchildren on his knees.
About one o’clock in the afternoon, he arrived in a landau which he had hired at Marseilles, in front of one of those houses of Southern France so white, at the end of their avenues of plane-trees that they dazzle us and make our eyes droop. He smiled as he pursued his way along the walk before the house, and reflected:
“Deuce take it! this is a nice place.”
Suddenly, a young rogue of five or six made his appearance, starting out of a shrubbery, and remained standing at the side of the path, staring at the gentleman with eyes wide open.
Mordiane came over to him:
“Good morrow, my boy.”
The brat made no reply.
The baron, then, stooping down, took him up in his arms to kiss him, but, the next moment, suffocated by the smell of garlic with which the child seemed impregnated all over, he put him back again on the ground, muttering:
“Oh! it is the gardener’s son.”
And he proceeded towards the house.
The linen was hanging out to dry on a cord before the door — shirts and chemises, napkins, dish-cloths, aprons, and sheets, while a row of socks, hanging from strings one above the other, filled up an entire window, like sausages exposed for sale in front of a pork-butcher’s shop.
The baron announced his arrival. A servant-girl appeared, a true servant of the South, dirty and untidy, with her hair hanging in wisps and falling over her face, while her petticoat under the accumulation of stains which had soiled it had retained only a certain uncouth remnant of its old color, a hue suitable for a country fair or a mountebank’s tights.
“Is M. Duchoux at home?”
He had many years ago, in the mocking spirit of a skeptical man of pleasure, given this name to the foundling, in order that it might not be forgotten that he had been picked up under a cabbage.
The servant-girl asked:
“Do you want M. Duchoux?”
“Well, he is in the big room drawing up his plans.”
“Tell him that M. Merlin wishes to speak to him.”
She replied, in amazement:
“Hey! go inside then, if you want to see him.”
And she bawled out:
“Monsieur Duchoux — a call.”
The baron entered, and in a spacious apartment, rendered dark by the windows being half-closed, he indistinctly traced out persons and things, which appeared to him very slovenly looking.
Standing in front of a table laden with articles of every sort, a little bald man was tracing lines on a large sheet of paper.
He interrupted his work, and advanced two steps. His waistcoat left open, his unbuttoned breeches, and his turned-up shirt-sleeves, indicated that he felt hot, and his muddy shoes showed that it had rained hard some days before.
He asked with a very pronounced southern accent:
“Whom have I the honor of —?”
“Monsieur Merlin — I came to consult you about a purchase of building-ground.”
“Ha! ha! very well!”
And Duchoux, turning towards his wife, who was knitting in the shade:
“Clear off a chair, Josephine.”
Mordiane then saw a young woman, who appeared already old, as women look old at twenty-five in the provinces, for want of attention to their persons, regular washing, and all the little cares bestowed on feminine toilet which make them fresh, and preserve, till the age of fifty, the charm and beauty of the sex. With a neckerchief over her shoulders, her hair clumsily braided — though it was lovely hair, thick and black, you could see that it was badly brushed — she stretched out towards a chair hands like those of a servant, and removed an infant’s robe, a knife, a fag-end of packe-bread, an empty flower-pot, and a greasy plate left on the seat, which she then moved over towards the visitor.
He sat down, and presently noticed that Duchoux’s work-table had on it, in addition to the books and papers, two salads recently gathered, a wash-hand basin, a hair-brush, a napkin, a revolver, and a number of cups which had not been cleaned.
The architect perceived this look, and said with a smile:
“Excuse us! there is a little disorder in the room — it is owing to the children.”
And he drew across his chair, in order to chat with his client.
“So then you are looking out for a piece of ground in the neighborhood of Marseilles?”
His breath, though not close to the baron, carried towards the latter that odor of garlic which the people of the South exhale as flowers do their perfume.
“Is it your son that I met under the plane-trees?”
“Yes. Yes, the second.”
“You have two of them?”
“Three, monsieur; one a year.”
And Duchoux looked full of pride.
The baron was thinking:
“If they all have the same perfume, their nursery must be a real conservatory.”
“Yes, I would like a nice piece of ground near the sea, on a little solitary strip of beach — ”
Thereupon Duchoux proceeded to explain. He had ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more, pieces of ground of the kind required, at different prices and suited to different tastes. He talked just as a fountain flows, smiling, self-satisfied, wagging his bald round head.
And Mordiane was reminded of a little woman, fair-haired, slight, with a somewhat melancholy look, and a tender fashion of murmuring, “My darling,” of which the mere remembrance made the blood stir in his veins. She had loved him passionately, madly, for three months; then, becoming pregnant in the absence of her husband, who was a governor of a colony, she had run away and concealed herself, distracted with despair and terror, till the birth of the child, which Mordiane carried off one summer’s evening, and which they had not laid eyes on afterwards.
She died of consumption three years later, over there, in the colony of which her husband was governor, and to which she had gone across to join him. And here, in front of him, was their son, who was saying, in the metallic tones with which he rang out his closing words:
“This piece of ground, monsieur, is a rare chance — ”
And Mordiane recalled the other voice, light as the touch of a gentle breeze, as it used to murmur:
“My darling, we shall never part — ”
And he remembered that soft, deep, devoted glance in those eyes of blue, as he watched the round eye, also blue, but vacant, of this ridiculous little man, who, for all that, bore a resemblance to his mother.
Yes, he looked more and more like her every moment — like her in accent, in movement, in his entire deportment — he was like her in the way an ape is like a man; but still he was hers; he displayed a thousand external characteristics peculiar to her, though in an unspeakably distorted, irritating, and revolting form.
The baron was galled, haunted as he was all of a sudden by this resemblance, horrible, each instant growing stronger, exasperating, maddening, torturing him like a nightmare, like a weight of remorse.
He stammered out:
“When can we look at this piece of ground together?”
“Why, tomorrow, if you like.”
“Yes, tomorrow. At what hour?”
The child he had met in the avenue appeared before the open door, exclaiming:
There was no answer.
Mordiane had risen up with a longing to escape, to run off, which made his legs tremble. This “dada” had hit him like a bullet. It was to him that it was addressed, it was intended for him, this “dada,” smelling of garlic — this “dada” of the South.
Oh! how sweet had been the perfume exhaled by her, his sweetheart of bygone days!
Duchoux saw him to the door.
“This house is your own?” said the baron.
“Yes, monsieur; I bought it recently. And I am proud of it. I am a child of accident, monsieur, and I don’t want to hide it; I am proud of it. I owe nothing to anyone; I am the son of my own efforts; I owe everything to myself.”
The little boy, who remained on the threshold, kept still exclaiming, though at some distance away from them:
Mordiane, shaking with a shivering fit, seized with panic, fled as one flies away from a great danger.
“He is going to guess who I am, to recognize me,” he thought. “He is going to take me in his arms, and to call out to me, ‘Dada,’ while giving me a kiss perfumed with garlic.”
“To-morrow, at one o’clock.”
The landau rolled over the white road.
“Coachman! to the railway-station!”
And he heard two voices, one far away and sweet, the faint, sad voice of the dead, saying: “My darling,” and the other sonorous, sing-song, frightful, bawling out, “Dada,” just as people bawl out, “Stop him!” when a thief is flying through the street.
Next evening, as he entered the club, the Count d’Etreillis said to him:
“We have not seen you for the last three days. Have you been ill?”
“Yes, a little unwell. I get headaches from time to time.”