Shortly after his final rupture with Mademoiselle Mimi, who had left him, as may be remembered, to ride in the carriage of Vicomte Paul, the poet Rodolphe had sought to divert his thoughts by taking a new mistress.
She was the same blonde for whom we have seen him masquerading as Romeo. But this union, which was on the one part only a matter of spite, and on the other one of fancy, could not last long. The girl was after all only a light of love, warbling to perfection the gamut of trickery, witty enough to note the wit of others and to make use of it on occasion, and with only enough heart to feel heartburn when she had eaten too much. Add to this unbridled self-esteem and a ferocious coquetry, which would have impelled her to prefer a broken leg for her lover rather than a flounce the less to her dress, or a faded ribbon to her bonnet. A commonplace creature of doubtful beauty, endowed by nature with every evil instinct, and yet seductive from certain points of view and at certain times. She was not long in perceiving that Rodolphe had only taken her to help him forget the absent, whom she made him on the contrary regret, for his old love had never been so noisy and so lively in his heart.
One day Juliet, Rodolphe's new mistress, was talking about her lover, the poet, with a medical student who was courting her. The student replied,--
"My dear child, that fellow only makes use of you as they use nitrate to cauterize wounds. He wants to cauterize his heart and nerve. You are very wrong to bother yourself about being faithful to him."
"Ah, ah!" cried the girl, breaking into a laugh. "Do you really think that I put myself out about him?"
And that very evening she gave the student a proof to the contrary.
Thanks to the indiscretion of one of those officious friends who are unable to retain unpublished news capable of vexing you, Rodolphe soon got wind of the matter, and made it a pretext for breaking off with his temporary mistress.
He then shut himself up in positive solitude, in which all the flitter-mice of ennui soon came and nested, and he called work to his aid but in vain. Every evening, after wasting as much perspiration over the job as he did in ink, he produced a score of lines in which some old idea, as worn out as the Wandering Jew, and vilely clad in rags cribbed from the literary dust heap, danced clumsily on the tight rope of paradox. On reading through these lines Rodolphe was as bewildered as a man who sees nettles spring up in a bed in which he thought he had planted roses. He would then tear up the paper, on which he had just scattered this chaplet of absurdities, and trample it under foot in a rage.
"Come," said he, striking himself on the chest just above the heart, "the cord is broken, there is nothing but to resign ourselves to it."
And as for some time past a like failure followed all his attempts at work, he was seized with one of those fits of depression which shake the most stubborn pride and cloud the most lucid intellects. Nothing is indeed more terrible than these hidden struggles that sometimes take place between the self-willed artist and his rebellious art. Nothing is more moving than these fits of rage alternating with invocation, in turn supplicating or imperative, addressed to a disdainful or fugitive muse.
The most violent human anguish, the deepest wounds to the quick of the heart, do not cause suffering approaching that which one feels in these hours of doubt and impatience, so frequent for those who give themselves up to the dangerous calling of imagination.
To these violent crises succeeded painful fits of depression. Rodolphe would then remain for whole hours as though petrified in a state of stupefied immobility. His elbows upon the table, his eyes fixed upon the luminous patch made by the rays of the lamp falling upon the sheet of paper, -- the battlefield on which his mind was vanquished daily, and on which his pen had become foundered in its attempts to pursue the unattainable idea -- he saw slowly defile before him, like the figures of dissolving views with which the children are amused, fantastic pictures which unfolded before him the panorama of his past. It was at first the laborious days in which each hour marked the accomplishment of some task, the studious nights spent in tete-a-tete with the muse who came to adorn with her fairy visions his solitary and patient poverty. And he remembered then with envy the pride of skill that intoxicated him of yore when he had completed the task imposed on him by his will.
"Oh, nothing is equal to you!" he exclaimed. "Voluptuous fatigues of labor which render the mattresses of idleness so sweet. Not the satisfaction of self-esteem nor the feverish slumbers stifled beneath the heavy drapery of mysterious alcoves equals that calm and honest joy, that legitimate self satisfaction which work bestows on the laborer as a first salary."
And with eyes still fixed on these visions which continued to retrace for him the scenes of bygone days, he once more ascended the six flights of stairs of all the garrets in which his adventurous existence had been spent, in which the Muse, his only love in those days, a faithful and persevering sweetheart had always followed him, living happily with poverty and never breaking off her song of hope. But, lo, in the midst of this regular and tranquil life there suddenly appears a woman's face, and seeing her enter the dwelling where she had been until then sole queen and mistress, the poet's Muse rose sadly and gave place to the new comer in whom she had divined a rival. Rodolphe hesitated a moment between the Muse to whom his look seemed to say, "Stay," whilst a gesture addressed to the stranger said, "Come."
And how could he repulse her, this charming creature who came to him armed with all the seductions of a beauty at its dawn? Tiny mouth and rosy lips, speaking in bold and simple language, full of coaxing promises. How refuse his hand to this little white one, delicately veined with blue, that was held out to him full of caresses? How say, "Get you gone," to these eighteen years, the presence of which already filled the home with a perfume of youth and gaiety? And then with her sweet voice, tenderly thrilling, she sang the cavatina of temptation so well. With her bright and sparkling eyes she said so clearly, "I am love," with her lips, where kisses nestled, "I am pleasure," with her whole being, in short, "I am happiness," that Rodolphe let himself be caught by them. And, besides, was not this young girl after all real and living poetry, had he not owed her his freshest inspirations, had she not often initiated him into enthusiasms which bore him so far afield in the ether of reverie that he lost sight of all things of earth? If he had suffered deeply on account of her, was not this suffering the expiation of the immense joys she had bestowed upon him? Was it not the ordinary vengeance of human fate which forbids absolute happiness as an impiety? If the law of Christianity forgives those who have much loved, it is because they have also much suffered, and terrestrial love never became a divine passion save on condition of being purified by tears. As one grows intoxicated by breathing the odor of faded roses, Rodolphe again became so by reviving in recollection that past life in which every day brought about a fresh elegy, a terrible drama, or a grotesque comedy. He went through all the phases of his strange love from their honeymoon to the domestic storms that had brought about their last rupture, he recalled all the tricks of his ex-mistress, repeated all her witty sayings. He saw her going to and fro about their little household, humming her favorite song, and facing with the same careless gaiety good or evil days.
And in the end he arrived at the conclusion that common sense was always wrong in love affairs. What, indeed, had he gained by their rupture? At the time when he was living with Mimi she deceived him, it was true, but if he was aware of this it was his fault after all that he was so, and because he gave himself infinite pains to become aware of it, because he passed his time on the alert for proofs, and himself sharpened the daggers which he plunged into his heart. Besides, was not Mimi clever enough to prove to him at need that he was mistaken? And then for whose sake was she false to him? It was generally a shawl or a bonnet -- for the sake of things and not men. That calm, that tranquillity which he had hoped for on separating from his mistress, had he found them again after her departure? Alas, no! There was only herself the less in the house. Of old his grief could find vent, he could break into abuse, or representations -- he could show all he suffered and excite the pity of her who caused his sufferings. But now his grief was solitary, his jealousy had become madness, for formerly he could at any rate, when he suspected anything, hinder Mimi from going out, keep her beside him in his possession, and now he might meet her in the street on the arm of her new lover, and must turn aside to let her pass, happy no doubt, and bent upon pleasure.
This wretched life lasted three or four months. By degrees he recovered his calmness. Marcel, who had undertaken a long journey to drive Musette out of his mind, returned to Paris, and again came to live with Rodolphe. They consoled one another.
One Sunday, crossing the Luxembourg Gardens, Rodolphe met Mimi resplendently dressed. She was going to a public ball. She nodded to him, to which he responded by a bow. This meeting gave him a great shock, but his emotion was less painful than usual. He walked about for a little while in the gardens, and then returned home. When Marcel came in that evening he found him at work.
"What!" said Marcel, leaning over his shoulder. "You are working -- verses?"
"Yes," replied Rodolphe cheerfully, "I believe that the machine will still work. During the last four hours I have once more found the go of bygone time, I have seen Mimi."
"Ah!" said Marcel uneasily. "On what terms are you?"
"Do not be afraid," said Rodolphe, "we only bowed to one another. It went no further than that."
"Really and truly?" asked Marcel.
"Really and truly. It is all over between us, I feel it; but if I can get to work again I forgive her."
"If it is so completely finished," said Marcel, who had read through Rodolphe's verses, "why do you write verses about her?"
"Alas!" replied the poet, "I take my poetry where I can find it."
For a week he worked at this little poem. When he had finished it he read it to Marcel, who expressed himself satisfied with it, and who encouraged Rodolphe to utilize in other ways the poetical vein that had come back to him.
"For," remarked he, "it was not worth while leaving Mimi if you are always to live under her shadow. After all, though," he continued, smiling, "instead of lecturing others, I should do well to lecture myself, for my heart is still full of Musette. Well, after all, perhaps we shall not always be young fellows in love with such imps."
"Alas!" said Rodolphe, "there is no need to say in one's youth, 'Be off with you.'"
"That is true," observed Marcel, "but there are days on which I feel I should like to be a respectable old fellow, a member of the Institute, decorated with several orders, and, having done with the Musettes of this circle of society; the devil fly away with me if I would return to it. And you," he continued, laughing, "would you like to be sixty?"
"Today," replied Rodolphe, "I would rather have sixty francs."
A few days later, Mademoiselle Mimi having gone into a cafe with young Vicomte Paul, opened a magazine, in which the verses Rodolphe had written on her were printed.
"Good," said she, laughing at first, "here is my friend Rodolphe saying nasty things of me in the papers."
But when she finished the verses she remained intent and thoughtful. Vicomte Paul guessing that she was thinking of Rodolphe, sought to divert her attention.
"I will buy you a pair of earrings," said he.
"Ah!" said Mimi, "you have money, you have."
"And a Leghorn straw hat," continued the viscount.
"No," said Mimi. "If you want to please me, buy me this."
And she showed him the magazine in which she had just been reading Rodolphe's poetry.
"Oh! As to that, no," said the viscount, vexed.
"Very well," said Mimi coldly. "I will buy it myself with money I will earn. In point of fact, I would rather that it was not with yours."
And for two days Mimi went back to her old flower maker's workrooms, where she earned enough to buy this number. She learned Rodolphe's poetry by heart, and, to annoy Vicomte Paul, repeated it all day long to her friends. The verses were as follows:
WHEN I was seeking where to pledge my truth
Chance brought me face to face with you one day;
once I offered you my heart, my youth,
"Do with them what you will," I dared to say.
But "what you would," was cruel, dear; alas!
The youth I trusted with you is no more:
The heart is shattered like a fallen glass,
And the wind sings a funeral mass
On the deserted chamber floor,
Where he who loved you ne'er may pass.
Between us now, my dear, 'tis all U.P.,
I am a spectre and a phantom you,
Our love is dead and buried; if you agree,
We'll sing around its tombstone dirges due.
But let us take an air in a low key,
Lest we should strain our voices, more or less;
Some solemn minor, free from flourishes;
I'll take the bass, sing you the melody.
Mi, re, mi, do, re, la, -- ah! not that song!
Hearing the song that once you used to sing
My heart would palpitate -- though dead so long --
And, at the De Profundis, upward spring.
Do, mi, fa, sol, mi, do, -- this other brings
Back to the mind a valse of long ago,
The fife's shrill laughter mocked the sounding strings
That wept their notes of crystal to the bow.
Sol, do, do, si, si, la, -- ah! stay your hand!
This is the air we sang last year in chorus,
With Germans shouting for their fatherland
In Meudon woods, while summer's moon stood o'er us.
Well, well, we will not sing nor speculate,
But -- since we know they never more may be --
On our lost loves, without a grudge or hate,
Drop, while we smile, a final memory.
What times we had up there; do you remember?
When on your window panes the rain would stream,
And, seated by the fire, in dark December,
I felt your eyes inspire me many a dream.
The live coal crackled, kindling with the heat,
The kettle sang, melodious and sedate,
A music for the visionary feet
Of salamanders leaping in the grate:
Languid and lazy, with an unread book,
You scarcely tried to keep your lids apart,
While to my youthful love new growth I took,
Kissing your hands and yielding you my heart.
In merely entering one night believe,
One felt a scent of love and gaiety,
Which filled our little room from morn to eve,
For fortune loved our hospitality.
And winter went: then, through the open sash,
Spring flew, to say the year's long night was done;
We heard the call, and ran with impulse rash
In the green country side to meet the sun.
It was the Friday of the Holy Week,
The weather, for a wonder, mild and fair;
From hill to valley, and from plain to peak,
We wandered long, delighting in the air.
At length, exhausted by the pilgrimage,
We found a sort of natural divan,
Whence we could view the landscape, or engage
Our eyes in rapture on the heaven's wide span.
Hand clasped in hand, shoulder on shoulder laid,
With sense of something ventured, something missed,
Our two lips parted, each; no word was said,
And silently we kissed.
Around us blue-bell and shy violet
Their simple incense seemed to wave on high;
Surely we saw, with glances heavenward set,
God smiling from his azure balcony.
"Love on!" he seemed to say, "I make more sweet
The road of life you are to wander by,
Spreading the velvet moss beneath your feet;
Kiss, if you will; I shall not play the spy."
Love on, love on! In murmurs of the breeze,
In limpid stream, and in the woodland screen
That burgeons fresh in the renovated green,
In stars, in flowers, and music of the trees,
Love on, love on! But if my golden sun,
My spring, that comes once more to gladden earth,
If these should move your breasts to grateful mirth,
I ask no thanksgiving, your kiss is one.
A month passed by; and, when the roses bloomed
In beds that we had planted in the spring,
When least of all I thought my love was doomed,
You cast it from you like a noisome thing.
Not that your scorn was all reserved for me,
It flies about the world by fits and starts;
Your changeful fancy fits impartially
From knave of diamonds to knave of hearts.
And now you are happy, with a brilliant suite
Of bowing slaves and insincere gallants;
Go where you will, you see them at your feet;
A bed of perfumed posies round you flaunts:
The Ball's your garden: an admiring globe
Of lovers rolls about the lit saloon,
And, at the rustling of your silken robe,
The pack, in chorus, bay you like the moon.
Shod in the softness of a supple boot
Which Cinderella would have found too small,
One scarcely sees your little pointed foot
Flash in the flashing circle of the Ball.
Shod in the softness of a supple boot
Which Cinderella would have found too small,
One scarcely sees your little pointed foot
Flash in the flashing circle of the Ball.
In the soft baths that indolence has brought
Your once brown hands have got the ivory white,
The pallor of the lily which has caught
The silver moonbeam of a summer night:
On your white arm half clouded, and half clear,
Pearls shine in bracelets made of chiselled gold;
On your trim waist a shawl of true Cashmere
Aesthetically falls in waving fold:
Honiton point and costly Mechlin lace,
With gothic guipure of a creamy white --
The matchless cobwebs of long vanished days --
Combine to make your presence rich and bright.
But I preferred a simpler guise than that,
Your frock of muslin or plain calico,
Simple adornments, with a veilless hat,
Boots, black or grey, a collar white and low.
The splendor your admirers now adore
Will never bring me back my ancient heats;
And you are dead and buried, all the more
For the silk shroud where heart no longer beats.
So when I worked at this funereal dirge,
Where grief for a lost lifetime stands confessed,
I wore a clerk's costume of sable serge,
Though not gold eye glasses or pleated vest.
My penholder was wrapped in mournful crape,
The paper with black lines was bordered round
On which I labored to provide escape
For love's last memory hidden in the ground.
And now, when all the heart that I can save
Is used to furnish forth its epitaph.
Gay as a sexton digging his own grave
I burst into a wild and frantic laugh;
A laugh engendered by a mocking vein;
The pen I grasped was trembling as I wrote;
And even while I laughed, a scalding rain
Of tears turned all the writing to a blot.
It was the 24th of December, and that evening the Latin Quarter bore a special aspect. Since four o'clock in the afternoon the pawnbroking establishments and the shops of the second hand clothes dealers and booksellers had been encumbered by a noisy crowd, who, later in the evening, took the ham and beef shops, cook shops, and grocers by assault. The shopmen, even if they had had a hundred arms, like Briareus, would not have sufficed to serve the customers who struggled with one another for provisions. At the baker's they formed a string as in times of dearth. The wine shop keepers got rid of the produce of three vintages, and a clever statistician would have found it difficult to reckon up the number of knuckles of ham and of sausages which were sold at the famous shop of Borel, in the Rue Dauphine. In this one evening Daddy Cretaine, nicknamed Petit-Pain, exhausted eighteen editions of his cakes. All night long sounds of rejoicing broke out from the lodging houses, the windows of which were brilliantly lit up, and an atmosphere of revelry filled the district.
The old festival of Christmas Eve was being celebrated.
That evening, towards ten o'clock, Marcel and Rodolphe were proceeding homeward somewhat sadly. Passing up the Rue Dauphine they noticed a great crowd in the shop of a provision dealer, and halted a moment before the window. Tantalized by the sight of the toothsome gastronomic products, the two Bohemians resembled, during this contemplation, that person in a Spanish romance who caused hams to shrink only by looking at them.
"That is called a truffled turkey," said Marcel, pointing to a splendid bird, showing through its rosy and transparent skin the Perigordian tubercles with which it was stuffed. "I have seen impious folk eat it without first going down on their knees before it," added the painter, casting upon the turkey looks capable of roasting it.
"And what do you think of that modest leg of salt marsh mutton?" asked Rodolphe. "What fine coloring! One might think it was just unhooked from that butcher's shop in one of Jordaen's pictures. Such a leg of mutton is the favorite dish of the gods, and of my godmother Madame Chandelier."
"Look at those fish!" resumed Marcel, pointing to some trout. "They are the most expert swimmers of the aquatic race. Those little creatures, without any appearance of pretension, could, however, make a fortune by the exhibition of their skill; fancy, they can swim up a perpendicular waterfall as easily as we should accept an invitation to supper. I have almost had a chance of tasting them."
"And down there -- those large golden fruit, the foliage of which resembles a trophy of savage sabre blades! They are called pineapples, and are the pippins of the tropics."
"That is a matter of indifference to me," said Marcel. "So far as fruits are concerned, I prefer that piece of beef, that ham, or that simple gammon of bacon, cuirassed with jelly as transparent as amber."
"You are right," replied Rodolphe. "Ham is the friend of man, when he has one. However, I would not repulse that pheasant."
"I should think not; it is the dish of crowned heads."
And as, continuing on their way, they met joyful processions proceeding homewards, to do honor to Momus, Bacchus, Comus, and all the other divinities with names ending in "us," they asked themselves who was the Gamacho whose wedding was being celebrated with such a profusion of victuals.
Marcel was the first who recollected the date and its festival.
"It is Christmas Eve," said he.
"Do you remember last year's?" inquired Rodolphe.
"Yes," replied Marcel. "At Momus's. It was Barbemuche who stood treat. I should never have thought that a delicate girl like Phemie could have held so much sausage."
"What a pity that Momus has cut off our credit," said Rodolphe.
"Alas," said Marcel, "calendars succeed but do not resemble one another."
"Would not you like to keep Christmas Eve?" asked Rodolphe.
"With whom and with what?" inquired the painter.
"And the coin?"
"Wait a moment," said Rodolphe, "I will go into the cafe, where I know some people who play high. I will borrow a few sesterces from some favorite of fortune, and I will get something to wash down a sardine or a pig's trotter."
"Go," said Marcel. "I am as hungry as a dog. I will wait for you here,"
Rodolphe went into the cafe where he knew several people. A gentleman who had just won three hundred francs at cards made a regular treat of lending the poet a forty sous piece, which he handed over with that ill humor caused by the fever of play. At another time and elsewhere than at a cardtable, he would very likely have been good for forty francs.
"Well?" inquired Marcel, on seeing Rodolphe return.
"Here are the takings," said the poet, showing the money.
"A bite and a sup," said Marcel.
With this small sum they were however able to obtain bread, wine, cold meat, tobacco, fire and light.
They returned home to the lodging-house in which each had a separate room. Marcel's, which also served him as a studio, being the larger, was chosen as the banquetting hall, and the two friends set about the preparations for their feast there.
But to the little table at which they were seated, beside a fireplace in which the damp logs burned away without flame or heat, came a melancholy guest, the phantom of the vanished past.
They remained for an hour at least, silent, and thoughtful, but no doubt preoccupied by the same idea and striving to hide it. It was Marcel who first broke silence.
"Come," said he to Rodolphe, "this is not what we promised ourselves."
"What do you mean?" asked Rodolphe.
"Oh!" replied Marcel. "Do not try to pretend with me now. You are thinking of that which should be forgotten and I too, by Jove, I do not deny it."
"Well, it must be for the last time. To the devil with recollections that make wine taste sour and render us miserable when everybody else are amusing themselves." exclaimed Marcel, alluding to the joyful shouts coming from the rooms adjoining theirs. "Come, let us think of something else, and let this be the last time."
"That is what we always say and yet --," said Rodolphe, falling anew into the reverie.
"And yet we are continually going back to it," resumed Marcel. "That is because instead of frankly seeking to forget, we make the most trivial things a pretext to recall remembrances, which is due above all to the fact that we persist in living amidst the same surroundings in which the beings who have so long been our torment lived. We are less the slaves of passion than of habit. It is this captivity that must be escaped from, or we shall wear ourselves out in a ridiculous and shameful slavery. Well, the past is past, we must break the ties that still bind us to it. The hour has come to go forward without looking backward; we have had our share of youth, carelessness, and paradox. All these are very fine -- a very pretty novel could be written on them; but this comedy of amourous follies, this loss of time, of days wasted with the prodigality of people who believe they have an eternity to spend -- all this must have an end. It is no longer possible for us to continue to live much longer on the outskirts of society -- on the outskirts of life almost -- under the penalty of justifying the contempt felt for us, and of despising ourselves. For, after all, is it a life we lead? And are not the independence, the freedom of mannersm of which we boast so loudly, very mediocre advantages? True liberty consists of being able to dispense with the aid of others, and to exist by oneself, and have we got to that? No, the first scoundrel, whose name we would not bear for five minutes, avenges himself for our jests, and becomes our lord and master the day on which we borrow from him five francs, which he lends us after having made us dispense the worth of a hundred and fifty in ruses or in humiliations. For my part, I have had enough of it. Poetry does not alone exist in disorderly living, touch-and-go happiness, loves that last as long as a bedroom candle, more or less eccentric revolts against those prejudices which will eternally rule the world, for it is easier to upset a dynasty than a custom, however ridiculous it may be. It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shod and eating three meals a day. Whatever one may say, and whatever one may do, if one wants to attain anything one must always take the commonplace way. This speech may astonish you, friend Rodolphe; you may say that I am breaking my idols, you will call me corrupted; and yet what I tell you is the expression of my sincere wishes. Despite myself, a slow and salutary metamorphosis has taken place within me; reason has entered my mind -- burglariously, if you like, and perhaps against my will, but it has got in at last -- and has proved to me that I was on a wrong track, and that it would be at once ridiculous and dangerous to preservere in it. Indeed, what will happen if we continue this monotonous and idle vagabondage? We shall get to thirty, unknown, isolated, disgusted with all things and with ourselves, full of envy towards all those whom we see reach their goal, whatever it may be, and obliged, in order to live, to have recourse to shameful parasitism. Do not imagine that this is a fancy picture I have conjured up especially to frighten you. The future does not systematically appear to be all black, but neither does it all rose colored; I see it clearly as it is. Up till now the life we have led has been forced upon us -- we had the excuse of necessity. Now we are no longer to be excused, and if we do not re-enter the world, it will be voluntarily, for the obstacles against which we have had to struggle no longer exist."
"I say," said Rodolphe, "what are you driving at? Why and wherefore this lecture?"
"You thoroughly understand me," replied Marcel, in the same serious tones. "Just now I saw you, like myself, assailed by recollections that made you regret the past. You were thinking of Mimi and I was thinking of Musette. Like me, you would have liked to have had your mistress beside you. Well, I tell you that we ought neither of us to think of these creatures; that we were not created and sent into the world solely to sacrifice our existence to these commonplace Manon Lescaut's, and that the Chevalier Desgrieux, who is so fine, so true, and so poetical, is only saved from being ridiculous by his youth and the illusions he cherishes. At twenty he can follow his mistress to America without ceasing to be interesting, but at twenty-five he would have shown Manon the door, and would have been right. It is all very well to talk; we are old, my dear fellow; we have lived too fast, our hearts are cracked, and no longer ring truly; one cannot be in love with a Musette or a Mimi for three years with impunity. For me it is all over, and I wish to be thoroughly divorced from her remembrance. I am now going to commit to the flames some trifles that she has left me during her various stays, and which oblige me to think of her when I come across them."
And Marcel, who had risen, went and took from a drawer a little cardboard box in which were the souvenirs of Musette -- a faded bouquet, a sash, a bit of ribbon, and some letters.
"Come," said he to the poet, "follow my example, Rodolphe."
"Very well, then," said the latter, making an effort, "you are right. I too will make an end of it with that girl with the white hands."
And, rising suddenly, he went and fetched a small packet containing souvenirs of Mimi of much the same kind as those of which Marcel was silently making an inventory.
"This comes in handy," murmured the painter. "This trumpery will help us to rekindle the fire which is going out."
"Indeed," said Rodolphe, "it is cold enough here to hatch polar bears."
"Come," said Marcel, "let us burn in a duet. There goes Musette's prose; it blazes like punch. She was very fond of punch. Come Rodolphe, attention!"
And for some minutes they alternately emptied into the fire, which blazed clear and noisily, the reliquaries of their past love.
"Poor Musette!" murmured Marcel to himself, looking at the last object remaining in his hands.
It was a little faded bouquet of wildflowers.
"Poor Musette, she was very pretty though, and she loved me dearly, is it not so, little bouquet? Her heart told you so the day she wore you at her waist. Poor little bouquet, you seem to be pleading for mercy; well, yes; but on one condition; it is that you will never speak to me of her any more, never, never!"
And profiting by a moment when he thought himself unnoticed by Rodolphe, he slipped the bouquet into his breast pocket.
"So much the worse, it is stronger than I am. I am cheating," thought the painter.
And as he cast a furtive glance towards Rodolphe, he saw the poet, who had come to the end of his auto-da-fe, putting quietly into his own pocket, after having tenderly kissed it, a little night cap that had belonged to Mimi.
"Come," muttered Marcel, "he is as great a coward as I am."
At the very moment that Rodolphe was about to return to his room to go to bed, there were two little taps at Marcel's door.
"Who the deuce can it be at this time of night?" said the painter, going to open it.
A cry of astonishment burst from him when he had done so.
It was Mimi.
As the room was very dark Rodolphe did not at first recognize his mistress, and only distinguishing a woman, he thought that it was some passing conquest of his friend's, and out of discretion prepared to withdraw.
"I am disturbing you," said Mimi, who had remained on the threshold.
At her voice Rodolphe dropped on his chair as though thunderstruck.
"Good evening," said Mimi, coming up to him and shaking him by the hand which he allowed her to take mechanically.
"What the deuce brings you here and at this time of night?" asked Marcel.
"I was very cold," said Mimi shivering. "I saw a light in your room as I was passing along the street, and although it was very late I came up."
She was still shivering, her voice had a cristalline sonority that pierced Rodolphe's heart like a funeral knell, and filled it with a mournful alarm. He looked at her more attentively. It was no longer Mimi, but her ghost.
Marcel made her sit down beside the fire.
Mimi smiled at the sight of the flame dancing merrily on the hearth.
"It is very nice," said she, holding out her poor hands blue with cold. "By the way, Monsieur Marcel, you do not know why I have called on you?"
"Well," said Mimi, "I simply came to ask you whether you could get them to let me a room here. I have just been turned out of my lodgings because I owe a month's rent and I do not know where to go to."
"The deuce!" said Marcel, shaking his head, "we are not in very good odor with our landlord and our recommendation would be a most unfortunate one, my poor girl."
"What is to be done then?" said Mimi. "The fact is I have nowhere to go."
"Ah!" said Marcel. "You are no longer a viscountess, then?"
"Good heavens, no! Not at all."
"But since when?"
"Two months ago, already."
"Have you been playing tricks on the viscount, then?"
"No," said she, glancing at Rodolphe, who had taken his place in the darkest corner of the room, "the viscount kicked up a row with me on account of some verses that were written about me. We quarrelled, and I sent him about his business. He is a nice skin flint, I can tell you."
"But," said Marcel, "he had rigged you out very finely, judging by what I saw the day I met you."
"Well," said Mimi, "would you believe it, that he took everything away from me when I left him, and I have since heard that he raffled all my clothes at a wretched table d'hote where he used to take me to dine. He is wealthy enough, though, and yet with all his fortune he is as miserly as a clay fireball and as stupid as an owl. He would not allow me to drink wine without water, and made me fast on Fridays. Would you believe it, he wanted me to wear black stockings, because they did not want washing as often as white ones. You have no idea of it, he worried me nicely I can tell you. I can well say that I did my share of purgatory with him."
"And does he know your present situation?" asked Marcel.
"I have not seen him since and I do not want to," replied Mimi. "It makes me sick when I think of him. I would rather die of hunger than ask him for a sou."
"But," said Marcel, "since you left him you have not been living alone."
"Yes, I assure you, Monsieur Marcel," exclaimed Mimi quickly. "I have been working to earn my living, only as artificial flower making was not a very flourishing business I took up another. I sit to painters. If you have any jobs to give me," she added gaily.
And having noticed a movement on the part of Rodolphe, whom she did not take her eyes off whilst talking to his friend, Mimi went on:
"Ah, but I only sit for head and hands. I have plenty to do, and I am owed money by two or three, I shall have some in a couple of days, it is only for that interval that I want to find a lodging. When I get the money I shall go back to my own. Ah!" said she, looking at the table, which was still laden with the preparation for the modest feast which the two friends had scarcely touched, "you were going to have supper?"
"No," said Marcel, "we are not hungry."
"You are very lucky," said Mimi simply.
At this remark Rodolphe felt a horrible pang in his heart, he made a sign to Marcel, which the latter understood.
"By the way," said the artist, "since you are here Mimi, you must take pot luck with us. We were going to keep Christmas Eve, and then -- why -- we began to think of other things."
"Then I have come at the right moment," said Mimi, casting an almost famished glance at the food on the table. "I have had no dinner," she whispered to the artist, so as not to be heard by Rodolphe, who was gnawing his handkerchief to keep him from bursting into sobs.
"Draw up, Rodolphe," said Marcel to his friend, "we will all three have supper together."
"No," said the poet remaining in his corner.
"Are you angry, Rodolphe," that I have come here?" asked Mimi gently. "Where could I go to?"
"No, Mimi," replied Rodolphe, "only I am grieved to see you like this."
"It is my own fault, Rodolphe, I do not complain, what is done is done, so think no more about it than I do. Cannot you still be my friend, because you have been something else? You can, can you not? Well then, do not frown on me, and come and sit down at the table with us."
She rose to take him by the hand, but was so weak, that she could not take a step, and sank back into her chair.
"The heat has dazed me," she said, "I cannot stand."
"Come," said Marcel to Rodolphe, "come and join us."
The poet drew up to the table, and began to eat with them. Mimi was very lively.
"My dear girl, it is impossible for us to get you a room in the house."
"I must go away then," said she, trying to rise.
"No, no," said Marcel. "I have another way of arranging things, you can stay in my room, and I will go and sleep with Rodolphe."
"It will put you out very much, I am afraid," said Mimi, "but it will not be for long, only a couple of days."
"It will not put us out at all in that case," replied Marcel, "so it is understood, you are at home here, and we are going to Rodolphe's room. Good night, Mimi, sleep well."
"Thanks," said she, holding out her hand to Marcel and Rodolphe, who moved away together.
"Do you want to lock yourself in?" asked Marcel as he got to the door.
"Why?" said Mimi, looking at Rodolphe, "I am not afraid."
When the two friends were alone in Rodolphe's room, which was on the same floor, Marcel abruptly said to his friend, "well, what are you going to do now?"
"I do not know," stammered Rodolphe.
"Come, do not shilly-shally, go and join Mimi! If you do, I prophecy that tomorrow you will be living together again."
"If it were Musette who had returned, what would you do?" enquired Rodolphe of his friend.
"If it were Musette that was in the next room," replied Marcel, "well, frankly, I believe that I should not have been in this one for a quarter of an hour past."
"Well," said Rodolphe, "I will be more courageous than you, I shall stay here."
"We shall see that," said Marcel, who had already got into bed. "Are you coming to bed?"
"Certainly," replied Rodolphe.
But in the middle of the night, Marcel waking up, perceived that Rodolphe had left him.
In the morning, he went and tapped discreetly at the door of the room in which Mimi was.
"Come in," said she, and on seeing him, she made a sign to him to speak low in order not to wake Rodolphe who was asleep. He was seated in an arm chair, which he had drawn up to the side of the bed, his head resting on a pillow beside that of Mimi.
"It is like that that you passed the night?" said Marcel in great astonishment.
"Yes," replied the girl.
Rodolphe woke up all at once, and after kissing Mimi, held out his hand to Marcel, who seemed greatly puzzled.
"I am going to find some money for breakfast," said he to the painter. "You will keep Mimi company."
"Well," asked Marcel of the girl when they were alone together, "what took place last night?"
"Very sad things," said Mimi. "Rodolphe still loves me."
"I know that very well."
"Yes, you wanted to separate him from me. I am not angry about it, Marcel, you were quite right, I have done no good to the poor fellow."
"And you," asked Marcel, "do you still love him?"
"Do I love him?" said she, clasping her hands. "It is that that tortures me. I am greatly changed, my friend, and it needed but little time for that."
"Well, now he loves you, you love him and you cannot do without one another, come together again and try and remain."
"It is impossible," said Mimi.
"Why?" inquired Marcel. "Certainly it would be more sensible for you to separate, but as for your not meeting again, you would have to be a thousand leagues from one another."
"In a little while I shall be further off than that."
"What do you mean?"
"Do not speak of it to Rodolphe, it would cause him too much pain, but I am going away forever."
"Look here, Marcel," said Mimi sobbing, "look."
And lifting up the sheet of the bed a little she showed the artist her shoulders, neck and arms.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Marcel mournfully, "poor girl."
"Is it not true, my friend, that I do not deceive myself and that I am soon going to die."
"But how did you get into such a state in so short a time?"
"Ah!" replied Mimi, "with the life I have been leading for the past two months it is not astonishing; nights spent in tears, days passed in posing in studios without any fire, poor living, grief, and then you do not know all, I tried to poison myself with Eau de Javelle. I was saved but not for long as you see. Besides I have never been very strong, in short it is my fault, if I had remained quietly with Rodolphe I should not be like this. Poor fellow, here I am again upon his hands, but it will not be for long, the last dress he will give me will be all white, Marcel, and I shall be buried in it. Ah! If you knew how I suffer because I am going to die. Rodolphe knows that I am ill, he remained for over an hour without speaking last night when he saw my arms and shoulders so thin. He no longer recognized his Mimi. Alas! My very looking glass does not know me. Ah! All the same I was pretty and he did love me. Oh, God!" she exclaimed, burying her face in Marcel's hands. "I am going to leave you and Rodolphe too, oh God!" and sobs choked her voice.
"Come, Mimi," said Marcel, "never despair, you will get well, you only want care and rest."
"Ah, no!" said Mimi. "It is all over, I feel it. I have no longer any strength, and when I came here last night it took me over an hour to get up the stairs. If I found a woman here I should have gone down by way of the window. However, he was free since we were no longer together, but you see, Marcel, I was sure he loved me still. It was on account of that," she said, bursting into tears, "it is on account of that that I do not want to die at once, but it is all over with me. He must be very good, poor fellow, to take me back after all the pain I have given him. Ah! God is not just since he does not leave me only the time to make Rodolphe forget the grief I caused him. He does not know the state in which I am. I would not have him lie beside me, for I feel as if the earthworms were already devouring my body. We passed the night in weeping and talking of old times. Ah! How sad it is, my friend, to see behind one the happiness one has formerly passed by without noticing it. I feel as if I had fire in my chest, and when I move my limbs it seems as if they were going to snap. Hand me my dress, I want to cut the cards to see whether Rodolphe will bring in any money. I should like to have a good breakfast with you, like we used to; that would not hurt me. God cannot make me worse than I am. See," she added, showing Marcel the pack of cards she had cut, "Spades -- it is the color of death. Clubs," she added more gaily. "yes we shall have some money."
Marcel did not know what to say in presence of the lucid delirium of this poor creature, who already felt, as she said, the worms of the grave.
In an hour's time Rodolphe was back. He was accompanied by Schaunard and Gustave Colline. The musician wore a summer jacket. He had sold his winter suit to lend money to Rodolphe on learning that Mimi was ill. Colline on his side had gone and sold some books. If he could have got anyone to buy one of his arms or legs he would have agreed to the bargain rather than part with his cherished volumes. But Schaunard had pointed out to him that nothing could be done with his arms or his legs.
Mimi strove to recover her gaiety to greet her old friends.
"I am no longer naughty," said she to them, "and Rodolphe has forgiven me. If he will keep me with him I will wear wooden shoes and a mob-cap, it is all the same to me. Silk is certainly not good for my health," she added with a frightful smile.
At Marcel's suggestion, Rodolphe had sent for one of his friends who had just passed as a doctor. It was the same who had formerly attended Francine. When he came they left him alone with Mimi.
Rodolphe, informed by Marcel, was already aware of the danger run by his mistress. When the doctor had spoken to Mimi, he said to Rodolphe --
"You cannot keep her here. Save for a miracle she is doomed. You must send her to the hospital. I will give you a letter for La Pitie. I know one of the house surgeons there; she will be well looked after. If she lasts till the spring we may perhaps pull her through, but if she stays here she will be dead in a week."
"I shall never dare propose it to her," said Rodolphe.
"I spoke to her about it," replied the doctor, "and she agreed. Tomorrow I will send you the order of admission to La Pitie."
"My dear," said Mimi to Rodolphe, "the doctor is right; you cannot nurse me here. At the hospital they may perhaps cure me, you must send me there. Ah! You see I do so long to live now, that I would be willing to end my days with one hand in a raging fire and the other in yours. Besides, you will come and see me. You must not grieve, I shall be well taken care of: the doctor told me so. You get chicken at the hospital and they have fires there. Whilst I am taking care of myself there, you will work to earn money, and when I am cured I will come back and live with you. I have plenty of hope now. I shall come back as pretty as I used to be. I was very ill in the days before I knew you, and I was cured. Yet I was not happy in those days, I might just as well died. Now that I have found you again and that we can be happy, they will cure me again, for I shall fight hard against my illness. I will drink all the nasty things they give me, and if death seizes on me it will be by force. Give me the looking glass: it seems to me that I have little color in my cheeks. Yes," said she, looking at herself in the glass, "my color is coming back, and my hands, see, they are still pretty; kiss me once more, it will not be the last time, my poor darling," she added, clasping Rodolphe round the neck, and burying his face in her loosened tresses.
Before leaving for the hospital, she wanted her friends the Bohemians to stay and pass the evening with her.
"Make me laugh," said she, "cheerfulness is health to me. It is that wet blanket of a viscount made me ill. Fancy, he wanted to make me learn orthography; what the deuce should I have done with it? And his friends, what a set! A regular poultry yard, of which the viscount was the peacock. He marked his linen himself. If he ever marries I am sure that it will be he who will suckle the children."
Nothing could be more heart breaking than the almost posthumous gaiety of poor Mimi. All the Bohemians made painful efforts to hide their tears and continue the conversation in the jesting tone started by the unfortunate girl, for whom fate was so swiftly spinning the linen of her last garment.
The next morning Rodolphe received the order of admission to the hospital. Mimi could not walk, she had to be carried down to the cab. During the journey she suffered horribly from the jolts of the vehicle. Admist all her sufferings the last thing that dies in woman, coquetry, still survived; two or three times she had the cab stopped before the drapers' shops to look at the display in the windows.
On entering the ward indicated in the letter of admission Mimi felt a terrible pang at her heart, something within her told her that it was between these bare and leprous walls that her life was to end. She exerted the whole of the will left her to hide the mournful impression that had chilled her.
When she was put to bed she gave Rodolphe a final kiss and bid him goodbye, bidding him come and see her the next Sunday which was a visitors' day.
"It does not smell very nice here," said she to him, "bring me some flowers, some violets, there are still some about."
"Yes," said Rodolphe, "goodbye till Sunday."
And he drew together the curtains of her bed. On hearing the departing steps of her lover, Mimi was suddenly seized with an almost delirious attack of fever. She suddenly opened the curtains, and leaning half out of bed, cried in a voice broken with tears:
"Rodolphe, take me home, I want to go away."
The sister of charity hastened to her and tried to calm her.
"Oh!" said Mimi, "I am going to die here."
On Sunday morning, the day he was to go and see Mimi, Rodolphe remembered that he had promised her some violets. With poetic and loving superstition he went on foot in horrible weather to look for the flowers his sweetheart had asked him for, in the woods of Aulnay and Fontenay, where he had so often been with her. The country, so lively and joyful in the sunshine of the bright days of June and July, he found chill and dreary. For two hours he beat the snow covered thickets, lifting the bushes with a stick, and ended by finding a few tiny blossoms, and as it happened, in a part of the wood bordering the Le Plessis pool, which had been their favorite spot when they came into the country.
Passing through the village of Chatillon to get back to Paris, Rodolphe met in the square before the church a baptismal procession, in which he recognized one of his friends who was the godfather, with a singer from the opera.
"What the deuce are you doing here?" asked the friend, very much surprised to see Rodolphe in those parts.
The poet told him what had happened.
The young fellow, who had known Mimi, was greatly saddened at this story, and feeling in his pocket took out a bag of christening sweetmeats and handed it to Rodolphe.
"Poor Mimi, give her this from me and tell her I will come and see her."
"Come quickly, then, if you would come in time," said Rodolphe, as he left him.
When Rodolphe got to the hospital, Mimi, who could not move, threw her arms about him in a look.
"Ah, there are my flowers!" said she, with the smile of satisfied desire.
Rodolphe related his pilgrimage into that part of the country that had been the paradise of their loves.
"Dear flowers," said the poor girl, kissing the violets. The sweetmeats greatly pleased her too. "I am not quite forgotten, then. The young fellows are good. Ah! I love all your friends," said she to Rodolphe.
This interview was almost merry. Schaunard and Colline had rejoined Rodolphe. The nurses had almost to turn them out, for they had overstayed visiting time.
"Goodbye," said Mimi. "Thursday without fail, and come early."
The following day on coming home at night, Rodolphe received a letter from a medical student, a dresser at the hospital, to whose care he had recommended the invalid. The letter only contained these words:--
"My dear friend, I have very bad news for you. No. 8 is dead. This morning on going through the ward I found her bed vacant."
Rodolphe dropped on to a chair and did not shed a tear. When Marcel came in later he found his friend in the same stupefied attitude. With a gesture the poet showed him the latter.
"Poor girl!" said Marcel.
"It is strange," said Rodolphe, putting his hand to his heart; "I feel nothing here. Was my love killed on learning that Mimi was to die?"
"Who knows?" murmured the painter.
Mimi's death caused great mourning amongst the Bohemians.
A week later Rodolphe met in the street the dresser who had informed him of his mistress's death.
"Ah, my dear Rodolphe!" said he, hastening up to the poet. "Forgive me the pain I caused you by my heedlessness."
"What do you mean?" asked Rodolphe in astonishment.
"What," replied the dresser, "you do not know? You have not seen her again?"
"Seen whom?" exclaimed Rodolphe.
"What?" said the poet, turning deadly pale.
"I made a mistake. When I wrote you that terrible news I was the victim of an error. This is how it was. I had been away from the hospital for a couple of days. When I returned, on going the rounds with the surgeons, I found Mimi's bed empty. I asked the sister of charity what had become of the patient, and she told me that she had died during the night. This is what had happened. During my absence Mimi had been moved to another ward. In No. 8 bed, which she left, they put another woman who died the same day. That will explain the mistake into which I fell. The day after that on which I wrote to you, I found Mimi in the next ward. Your absence had put her in a terrible state; she gave me a letter for you and I took it on to your place at once."
"Good God!" said Rodolphe. "Since I thought Mimi dead I have not dared to go home. I have been sleeping here and there at friends' places. Mimi alive! Good heavens! What must she think of my absence? Poor girl, poor girl! How is she? When did you see her last?"
"The day before yesterday. She was neither better nor worse, but very uneasy; she fancies you must be ill."
"Let us go to La Pitie at once," said Rodolphe, "that I may see her."
"Stop here for a moment," said the dresser, when they reached the entrance to the hospital, "I will go and ask the house surgeon for permission for you to enter."
Rodolphe waited in the hall for a quarter of an hour. When the dresser returned he took him by the hand and said these words:
"My friend, suppose that the letter I wrote to you a week ago was true?"
"What!" exclaimed Rodolphe, leaning against a pillar, "Mimi --"
"This morning at four o'clock."
"Take me to the amphitheatre," said Rodolphe, "that I may see her."
"She is no longer there," said the dresser. And pointing out to the poet a large van which was in the courtyard drawn up before a building above which was inscribed, "Amphiteatre," he added, "She is there."
It was indeed the vehicle in which the corpses that are unclaimed are taken to their pauper's grave.
"Goodbye," said Rodolphe to the dresser.
"Would you like me to come with you a bit?" suggested the latter.
"No," said Rodolphe, turning away, "I need to be alone."