In Search of Lost Time Page 51

He continued, to the desperation of M. de Norpois, to ply him with questions about the Dreyfus case. The Ambassador declared that, looking at it from outside, he got the impression from du Paty de Clam of a somewhat cloudy brain, which had perhaps not been very happily chosen to conduct that delicate operation, which required so much coolness and discernment, a judicial inquiry.

“I know that the Socialist Party are crying aloud for his head on a charger, as well as for the immediate release of the prisoner from the Devil’s Isle. But I think that we are not yet reduced to the necessity of passing the Caudine Forks of MM. Gérault-Richard and Company. So far, the whole case has been an utter mystery, I don’t say that on one side just as much as on the other there has not been some pretty dirty work to be hushed up. That certain of your client’s more or less disinterested protectors may have the best intentions I will not attempt to deny, but you know that heaven is paved with such things,” he added, with a look of great subtlety. “It is essential that the Government should give the impression that they are not in the hands of the factions of the Left, and that they are not going to surrender themselves, bound hand and foot, at the demand of some pretorian guard or other, which, believe me, is not the same thing as the Army. It stands to reason that, should any fresh evidence come to light, a new trial would be ordered. And what follows from that? Obviously, that to demand a new trial is to force an open door. When the day comes, the Government will speak with no uncertain voice or will let fall into abeyance what is their essential prerogative. Cock and bull stories will no longer be enough. We must appoint judges to try Dreyfus. And that will be an easy matter because, although we have acquired the habit, in our sweet France, where we love to belittle ourselves, of thinking or letting it be thought that, in order to hear the words Truth and Justice, it is necessary to cross the Channel, which is very often only a roundabout way of reaching the Spree, there are judges to be found outside Berlin. But once the machinery of Government has been set in motion, will you have ears for the voice of authority? When it bids you perform your duty as a citizen will you have ears for its voice, will you take your stand in the ranks of law and order? When its patriotic appeal sounds, will you have the wisdom not to turn a deaf ear but to answer: ‘Present!’?”

M. de Norpois put these questions to Bloch with a vehemence which, while it alarmed my friend, flattered him also; for the Ambassador spoke to him with the air of one addressing a whole party, questioned him as though he had been in the confidence of that party and might be held responsible for the decisions which it would adopt. “Should you fail to disarm,” M. de Norpois went on, without waiting for Bloch’s collective answer, “should you, before even the ink had dried on the decree ordering the fresh trial of the case, obeying it matters not what insidious word of command, fail, I say, to disarm, and band yourselves, rather, in a sterile opposition which seems to some minds the ultima ratio of policy, should you retire to your tents and burn your boats, you would be doing so to your own, damnation. Are you the prisoners of those who foment disorder? Have you given them pledges?” Bloch was in doubt how to answer. M. de Norpois gave him no time. “If the negative be true, as I should like to think, and if you have a little of what seems to me to be lamentably lacking in certain of your leaders and your friends, namely political sense, then, on the day when the Criminal Court assembles, if you do not allow yourselves to be dragooned by the fishers in troubled waters, you will have won your battle. I do not guarantee that the whole of the General Staff is going to get away unscathed, but it will be so much to the good if some of them at least can save their faces without setting the heather on fire.

“It stands to reason, moreover, that it is with the Government that it rests to pronounce judgment, and to close the list — already too long — of unpunished crimes, not certainly at the bidding of Socialist agitators, nor yet of any obscure military mouthpiece,” he added, looking Bloch boldly in the face, perhaps with the instinct that leads all Conservatives to establish support for themselves in the enemy’s camp. “Government action is not to be dictated by the highest bidder, from wherever the bid may come. The Government are not, thank heaven, under the orders of Colonel Driant, nor, at the other end of the scale, under M. Clemenceau’s. We must curb the professional agitators and prevent them from raising their heads again. France, the vast majority here in France, desires only to be allowed to work in orderly conditions. As to that, there can be no question whatever. But we must not be afraid to enlighten public opinion; and if a few sheep, of the kind our friend Rabelais knew so well, should dash headlong into the water, it would be as well to point out to them that the water in question was troubled, that it had been troubled deliberately by an agency not within our borders, in order to conceal the dangers lurking in its depths. And the Government ought not to give the impression that they are emerging from their passivity in self-defence when they exercise the right which is essentially their own, I mean that of setting the wheels of justice in motion. The Government will accept all your suggestions. If it is proved that there has been a judicial error, they can be sure of an overwhelming majority which would give them room to act with freedom.”

“You, sir,” said Bloch, turning to M. d’Argencourt, to whom he had been made known, with the rest of the party, on that gentleman’s arrival, “you are a Dreyfusard, of course; they all are, abroad.”

“It is a question that concerns only the French themselves, don’t you think?” replied M. d’Argencourt with that peculiar form of insolence which consists in ascribing to the other person an opinion which one must, obviously, know that he does not hold since he has just expressed one directly its opposite.

Bloch coloured; M. d’Argencourt smiled, looking round the room, and if this smile, so long as it was directed at the rest of the company, was charged with malice at Bloch’s expense, it became tempered with cordiality when finally it came to rest on the face of my friend, so as to deprive him of any excuse for annoyance at the words which he had heard uttered, though those words remained just as cruel. Mme. de Guermantes murmured something to M. d’Argencourt which I could not hear, but which must have referred to Bloch’s religion, for there flitted at that moment over the face of the Duchess that expression to which one’s fear of being noticed by the person of whom one is speaking gives a certain hesitancy and unreality, while there is blended with it the inquisitive, malicious amusement inspired in one by a group of human beings to which one feels oneself to be fundamentally alien. To retrieve himself, Bloch turned to the Duc de Châtellerault. “You, sir, as a Frenchman, you must be aware that people abroad are all Dreyfusards, although everyone pretends that in prance we never know what is going on abroad. Anyhow, I know Ï can talk freely to you; Saint-Loup told me so.” But the young Duke, who felt that every one was turning against Bloch, and was a coward as people often are in society, employing a mordant and precious form of wit which he seemed, by a sort of collateral atavism, to have inherited from M. de Charlus, replied: “You must not ask me, sir, to discuss the Dreyfus case with you; it is a subject which, on principle, I never mention except to Japhetics.” Everyone smiled, except Bloch, not that he was not himself in the habit of making scathing references to his Jewish origin, to that side of his ancestry which came from somewhere near Sinai. But instead of one of these epigrams (doubtless because he had not one ready) the operation of the internal machine brought to Bloch’s lips something quite different. And we caught only: “But how on earth did you know? Who told you?” as though he had been the son of a convict. Whereas, given his name, which had not exactly a Christian sound, and his face, his surprise argued a certain simplicity of mind.

What M. de Norpois had said not having completely satisfied him, he went up to the librarian and asked him whether Mme. de Villeparisis did not sometimes have in her house M. du Paty de Clam or M. Joseph Reinach. The librarian made no reply; he was a Nationalist, and never ceased preaching to the Marquise that the social revolution might break out at any moment, and that she ought to shew more caution in the choice of her friends. He asked himself whether Bloch might not be a secret emissary of the Syndicate, come to collect information, and went off at once to repeat to Mme. de Villeparisis the questions that Bloch had put to him. She decided that, at the best, he was ill-bred and might be in a position to compromise M. de Norpois. Also, she wished to give satisfaction to the librarian, the only person of whom she went in fear, by whom she was being indoctrinated, though without any marked success (every morning he read her M. Judet’s article in the Petit Journal). She decided, therefore, to make it plain to Bloch that he need not come to the house again, and had no difficulty in finding, among her social repertory, the scene by which a great lady shows anyone her door, a scene which does not in any way involve the raised finger and blazing eyes that people imagine. As Bloch came up to her to say good-bye, buried in her deep armchair, she seemed only half-awakened from a vague somnolence. Her sunken eyes gleamed with only the feeble though charming light of a pair of pearls. Bloch’s farewell, barely pencilling on the Marquise’s face a languid smile, drew from her not a word, nor did she offer him her hand. This scene left Bloch in utter bewilderment, but as he was surrounded by a circle of spectators he felt that it could not be prolonged without disadvantage to himself, and, to force the Marquise, the hand which she had made no effort to take he himself thrust out at her. Mme. de Villeparisis was startled. But doubtless, while still bent upon giving an immediate satisfaction to the librarian and the anti-Dreyfusard clan, she wished at the same time to provide for the future, and so contented herself with letting her eyelids droop over her closing eyes.

“I believe she’s asleep,” said Bloch to the librarian who, feeling that he had the support of the Marquise, assumed an indignant air. “Good-bye madame,” snouted Bloch.

The old lady made the slight movement with her lips of a dying woman who wants to open her mouth but whose eye can no longer recognise people. Then she turned, overflowing with a restored vitality, to M. d’Argencourt, while Bloch left the room, convinced that she must be ‘soft’ in the head. Full of curiosity and anxious to have more light thrown upon so strange an incident, he came to see lier again a few days later. She received him in the most friendly fashion, because she was a good-natured woman, because the librarian was not there, because she had in mind the little play which Bloch was going to produce for her, and finally because she had acted once and for all the little scene of the indignant lady that she had wished to act, a scene that had been universally admired and discussed the same evening in various drawing-rooms, but in a version which had already ceased to bear any resemblance to the truth.

“You were speaking just now of the Seven Princesses, Duchess; you know (not that it’s anything to be proud of) that the author of that — what shall I call it?— that production is a compatriot of mine,” said M. d’Argencourt with a fine scorn blended with satisfaction at knowing more than anyone else in the room about the author of a work which had been under discussion. “Yes, he’s a Belgian, by nationality,” he went on.

“Indeed! No, we don’t accuse you of any responsibility for the Seven Princesses. Fortunately for yourself and your compatriots you are not like the author of that absurdity. I know several charming Belgians, yourself, your King, who is inclined to be shy, but full of wit, my Ligne cousins, and heaps of others, but you, I am thankful to say, do not speak the same language as the author of the Seven Princesses. Besides, if you want to know, it’s not worth talking about, because really there is absolutely nothing in it. You know the sort of people who are always trying to seem obscure, and even plan to make themselves ridiculous to conceal the fact that they have not an idea in their heads. If there was anything behind it all, I may tell you that I’m not in the least afraid of a little daring,” she added in a serious tone, “provided that there is some idea in it. I don’t know if you’ve seen Borelli’s piece. Some people seem to have been shocked by it, but I must say, even if they stone me through the streets for saying it,” she went on, without stopping to think that she ran no very great risk of such a punishment, “I found it immensely interesting. But theSeven Princesses! It’s all very well, one of them having a fondness for my nephew, I cannot carry family feeling quite…”

The Duchess broke off abruptly, for a lady came in who was the Comtesse de Marsantes, Robert’s mother. Mme. de Marsantes was regarded in the Faubourg Saint-Germain as a superior being, of a goodness, a resignation that were positively angelic. So I had been told, and had had no particular reason to feel surprised, not knowing at the same time that she was the sister of the Duc de Guermantes. Later, I have always been taken aback, whenever I have learned that such women, melancholy, pure, victimised, venerated like the ideal forms of saints in church windows, had flowered from the same genealogical stem as brothers brutal, debauched and vile. Brothers and sisters, when they are closely alike in features as were the pue de Guermantes and Mme. de Marsantes, ought (I felt) to have a single intellect in common, the same heart, as a person would have who might vary between good and evil moods but in whom one could not, for all that, expect to find a vast breadth of outlook if he had a narrow mind, or a sublime abnegation if his heart was hard.

Mme. de Marsantes attended Brunetière’s lectures. She fascinated the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by her saintly life, edified it as well. But the morphological link of handsome nose and piercing gaze led one, nevertheless, to classify Mme. de Marsantes in the same intellectual and moral family as her brother the Duke. I could not believe that the mere fact of her being a woman, and perhaps those of her having had an unhappy life and won everyone’s sympathy, could make a person be so different from the rest of her family, as in the old romances, where all the virtues and graces are combined in the sister of wild and lawless brothers. It seemed to me that nature, less unconventional than the old poets, must make use almost exclusively of the elements common to the family, and I was unable to credit her with enough power of invention to construct, out of materials analogous to those that composed a fool and clod, a lofty mind without the least strain of clownishness, a saint unsoiled by any brutality. Mme. de Marsantes was wearing a gown of white surah embroidered with large palms, on which stood out flowers of a different material, these being black. This was because, three weeks earlier, she had lost her cousin, M. de Montmorency, a bereavement which did not prevent her from paying calls or even from going to small dinners, but always in mourning. She was a great lady. Atavism had filled her with the frivolity of generations of life at court, with all the superficial, rigorous duties that that implies. Mme. de Marsantes had not had the strength of character to regret for any length of time the death of her father and mother, but she would not for anything in the world have appeared in colours in the month following that of a cousin. She was more than pleasant to me, both because I was Robert’s friend and because I did not move in the same world as he. This pleasantness was accompanied by a pretence of shyness, by that sort of intermittent withdrawal of the voice, the eyes, the mind which a woman draws back to her like a skirt that has indiscreetly spread, so as not to take up too much room, to remain stiff and erect even in her suppleness, as a good upbringing teaches. A good upbringing which must not, however, be taken too literally, many of these ladies passing very swiftly into a complete dissolution of morals without ever losing the almost childlike correctness of their manners. Mme. de Marsantes was a trifle irritating in conversation since, whenever she had occasion to speak of a plebeian, as for instance Bergotte or Elstir, she would say, isolating the word, giving it its full value, intoning it on two different notes with a modulation peculiar to the Guermantes: “I have had the honour, the great hon-our of meeting Monsieur Bergotte,” or “of making the acquaintance of Monsieur Elstir” whether that her hearers might marvel at her humility or from the same tendency that Mme. de Guermantes shewed to revert to the use of obsolete forms, as a protest against the slovenly usages of the present day, in which people never professed themselves sufficiently ‘honoured.’ Whichever Of these was the true reason, one felt that when Mme. de Marsantes said: “I have had the honour, the great hon-our,” she felt she was playing an important part and shewing that she could take in the names of distinguished men as she would have welcomed the men themselves at her home in the country, had they happened to be in the neighbourhood. On the other hand as her family connexion was numerous, as she was devoted to all her relatives, as, slow in speech and fond of explaining things at length, she was always trying to make clear the exact degree of kinship, she found herself (without any desire to create an effect and without really caring to talk about anyone except touching peasants and sublime gamekeepers) referring incessantly to all the mediatised houses in Europe, a failing which people less brilliantly connected than herself could not forgive, and, if they were at all intellectual, derided as a sign of stupidity.

In the country, Mme. de Marsantes was adored for the good that she did, but principally because the purity of a strain of blood into which for many generations there had flowed only what was greatest in the history of France had taken from her manner everything that the lower orders call ‘manners,’ and had given her a perfect simplicity. She never shrank from kissing a poor woman who was in trouble, and would tell her to come up to the castle for a cartload of wood. She was, people said, the perfect Christian. She was determined to find an immensely rich wife for Robert. Being a great lady means playing the great lady, that is to say, to a certain extent, playing at simplicity. It is a pastime which costs an extremely high price, all the more because simplicity charms people only on condition that they know that you are not bound to live simply, that is to say that you are very rich. Some one said to me afterwards, when I had told him of my meeting her: “You saw of course that she must have been lovely as a young woman.” But true beauty is so individual, so novel always, that one does not recognise it as beauty. I said to myself this afternoon only that she had a tiny nose, very blue eyes, a long neck and a sad expression.

“Listen,” said Mme. de Villeparisis to the Duchesse de Guermantes, “I’m expecting a woman at any moment whom you don’t wish to know. I thought I’d better warn you, to avoid any unpleasantness. But you needn’t be afraid, I shall never have her here again, only I was obliged to let her come to-day. It’s Swann’s wife.”

Mme. Swann, seeing the dimensions that the Dreyfus case had begun to assume, and fearing that her husband’s racial origin might be used against herself, had besought him never again to allude to the prisoner’s innocence. When he was not present she went farther and used to profess the most ardent Nationalism; in doing which she was only following the example of Mme. Verdurin, in whom a middle-class anti-semitism, latent hitherto, had awakened and grown to a positive fury. Mme. Swann had won by this attitude the privilege of membership in several of the women’s leagues that were beginning to be formed in anti-semitic society, and had succeeded in making friends with various members of the aristocracy. It may seem strange that, so far from following their example, the Duchesse de Guermantes, so close a friend of Swann, had on the contrary always resisted his desire, which he had not concealed from her, to introduce to her his wife. But we shall see in due course that this arose from the peculiar nature of the Duchess, who held that she was not ‘bound to’ do things, and laid down with despotic force what had been decided by her social ‘free will,’ which was extremely arbitrary.

“Thank you for telling me,” said the Duchess. “It would indeed be most unpleasant. But as I know her by sight I shall be able to get away in time.”

“I assure you, Oriane, she is really quite nice; an excellent woman,” said Mme. de Marsantes.

“I have no doubt she is, but I feel no need to assure myself of it.”

“Have you been invited to Lady Israels’s?” Mme. de Villeparisis asked the Duchess, to change the conversation.

“Why, thank heaven, I don’t know the woman,” replied Mme. de Guermantes. “You must ask Marie-Aynard. She knows her. I never could make out why.”

“I did indeed know her at one time,” said Mme. de Marsantes. “I confess my faults. But I have decided not to know her any more. It seems she’s one of the very worst of them, and makes no attempt to conceal it. Besides, we have all been too trusting, too hospitable. I shall never go near anyone of that race again. While we had old friends, country cousins, people of our own flesh and blood on whom we shut our doors, we threw them open to Jews. And now we see what thanks we get from them. But I’ve no right to speak; I have an adorable son, and, like a young fool, he says and does all the maddest things you can imagine,” she went on, having caught some allusion by M. d’Argencourt to Robert. “But, talking of Robert, haven’t you seen him?” she asked Mme. de Villeparisis; “being Saturday, I thought he’d be coming to Paris on leave, and in that case he would be sure to pay you a visit.”

As a matter of fact Mme. de Marsantes thought that her son would not obtain leave that week; but knowing that, even if he did, he would never dream of coming to see Mme. de Villeparisis, she hoped, by making herself appear to have expected to find him in the room, to procure his forgiveness from her susceptible aunt for all the visits that he had failed to pay her.

“Robert here! But I have never had a single word from him; I don’t think I’ve seen him since Balbec.”

“He is so busy; he has so much to do,” pleaded Mme. de Marsantes.

A faint smile made Mme. de Guermantes’s eyelashes quiver as she studied the circle which, with the point of her sunshade, she was tracing on the carpet. Whenever the Duke had been too openly unfaithful to his wife, Mme. de Marsantes had always taken up the cudgels against her own brother on her sister-in-law’s behalf. The latter had a grateful and bitter memory of this protection, and was not herself seriously shocked by Robert’s pranks. At this point the door opened again and Robert himself entered the room.

“Well, talk of the Saint!” said Mme. de Guermantes.

Mme. de Marsantes, who had her back to the door, had not seen her son come in. When she did catch sight of him, her motherly bosom was convulsed with joy, as by the beating of a wing, her body half rose her seat, her face quivered and she fastened on Robert eyes big astonishment.

“What! You’ve come! How delightful! What a surprise!”

“Ah! Talk of the Saint!— I see,” cried the Belgian diplomat, with a shout of laughter.

“Delicious, ain’t it?” came tartly from the Duchess, who hated puns and had ventured on this one only with a pretence of making fun of herself.

“Good afternoon, Robert,” she said, “I believe he’s forgotten his aunt.”

They talked for a moment, probably about myself, for as Saint-Loup was leaving her to join his mother Mme. de Guermantes turned to me:

“Good afternoon; how are you?” was her greeting.

She allowed to rain on me the light of her azure gaze, hesitated for a moment, unfolded and stretched towards me the stem of her arm, leaned forward her body which sprang rapidly backwards like a bush that has been pulled down to the ground and, on being released, returns to its natural position. Thus she acted under the fire of Saint-Loup’s eyes, which kept her under observation and were making frantic efforts to obtain some further concession still from his aunt. Fearing that our conversation might fail altogether, he joined in, to stimulate it, and answered for me:

“He’s not very well just now, he gets rather tired; I think he would be a great deal better, by the way, if he saw you more often, for I can’t help telling you that he admires you immensely.”

“Oh, but that’s very nice of him,” said Mme. de Guermantes in a deliberately casual tone, as if I had brought her her cloak. “I am most flattered.”

“Look, I must go and talk to my mother for a minute; take my chair,” said Saint-Loup, thus forcing me to sit down next to his aunt.

We were both silent.

“I see you sometimes in the morning,” she said, as though she were telling me something that I did not know, and I for my part had never seen her. “It’s so good for one, a walk.”

“Oriane,” began Mme. de Marsantes in a low tone, “you said you were going on to Mme. de Saint-Ferréol’s; would you be so very kind as to tell her not to expect me to dinner, I shall stay at home now that I’ve got Robert. And one other thing, but I hardly like to ask you, if you would leave word as you pass to tell them to send out at once for a box of the cigars Robert likes. ‘Corona,’ they’re called. I’ve none in the house.”

Robert came up to us; he had caught only the name of Mme. de Saint-Ferréol.

“Who in the world is Mme. de Saint-Ferréol?” he inquired, in a surprised but decisive tone, for he affected a studied ignorance of everything to do with society.

“But, my dear boy, you know quite well,” said his mother. “She’s Vermandois’s sister. It was she gave you that nice billiard table you liked so much.”

“What, she’s Vermandois’s sister, I had no idea of that. Really, my family are amazing,” he went on, turning so as to include me in the conversation and adopting unconsciously Bloch’s intonation just as he borrowed his ideas, “they know the most unheard-of people, people called Saint-Ferréol” (emphasising the final consonant of each word) “and names like that; they go to balls, they drive in victorias, they lead a fabulous existence. It’s prodigious.”

Mme. de Guermantes made in her throat a slight, short, sharp sound, as of an involuntary laugh which one chokes back, meaning thereby to shew that she paid just as much tribute as the laws of kinship imposed on her to her nephew’s wit. A servant came in to say that the Prince von Faffenheim-Munsterburg-Weinigen had sent word to M. de Norpois that he was waiting.

“Bring him in, sir,” said Mme. de Villeparisis to the old Ambassador, who started in quest of the German Minister.

“Stop, sir; do you think I ought to shew him the miniature of the Empress Charlotte?”

“Why, I’m sure he’ll be delighted,” said the Ambassador in a tone of conviction, and as though he were envying the fortunate Minister the favour that was in store for him.