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- Strong as Death - 30/47 -
Bertin held her by the hand standing before the portrait! She herself felt as if she had suddenly disappeared, dispossessed, dethroned. Everyone looked at Annette; no one had a glance for her any more! She was so accustomed to hear compliments and flattery, whenever her portrait was admired, she was so sure of eulogistic phrases, which she had little regarded but which pleased her nevertheless, that this desertion of herself, this unexpected defection, this admiration intended wholly for her daughter, had moved, astonished, and hurt her more than if it had been a question of no matter what rivalry under any kind of conditions.
But, as she had one of those natures which, in all crises, after the first blow, react, struggle, and find arguments for consolation, she reasoned that, once her dear little daughter should be married, when they should no longer live under the same roof, she herself would no longer be compelled to endure that incessant comparison which was beginning to be too painful for her under the eyes of her friend Olivier.
But the shock had been too much for her that evening. She was feverish and hardly slept at all. In the morning she awoke weary and overcome by extreme lassitude, and then within her surged up an irresistible longing to be comforted again, to be succored, to ask help from someone who could cure all her ills, all her moral and physical ailments.
Indeed, she felt so ill at ease and weak that she had an idea of consulting her physician. Perhaps she was about to be seriously affected, for it was not natural that in a few hours she should pass through those successive phases of suffering and relief. So she sent him a telegram, and awaited his coming.
He arrived about eleven o'clock. He was one of those dignified, fashionable physicians whose decorations and titles guarantee their ability, whose tact at least equals mere skill, and who have, above all, when treating women, an adroitness that is surer than medicines.
He entered, bowed, looked at his patient, and said with a smile: "Come, this is not a very grave case. With eyes like yours one is never very ill."
She felt immediate gratitude to him for this beginning, and told him of her troubles, her weakness, her nervousness and melancholy; then she mentioned, without laying too much stress on the matter, her alarmingly ill appearance. After listening to her with an attentive air, though asking no questions except as to her appetite, as if he knew well the secret nature of this feminine ailment, he sounded her, examined her, felt of her shoulders with the tips of his fingers, lifted her arms, having undoubtedly met her thought and understood with the shrewdness of a practitioner who lifts all veils that she was consulting him more for her beauty than for her health. Then he said:
"Yes, we are a little anemic, and have some nervous troubles. That is not surprising, since you have experienced such a great affliction. I will write you a little prescription that will set you right again. But above all, you must eat strengthening food, take beef-tea, no water, but drink beer. I will indicate an excellent brand. Do not tire yourself by late hours, but walk as much as you can. Sleep a good deal and grow a little plumper. This is all that I can advise you, my fair patient."
She had listened to him with deep interest, trying to guess at what his words implied. She caught at the last word.
"Yes, I am too thin," said she. "I was a little too stout at one time, and perhaps I weakened myself by dieting."
"Without any doubt. There is no harm in remaining thin when one has always been so; but when one grows thin on principle it is always at the expense of something else. Happily, that can be soon remedied. Good-bye, Madame."
She felt better already, more alert; and she wished to send for the prescribed beer for her breakfast, at its headquarters, in order to obtain it quite fresh.
She was just leaving the table when Bertin was announced.
"It is I, again," said he, "always I. I have come to ask you something. Have you anything particular to do this afternoon?"
"No, nothing. Why?"
"Then, can you come to the studio about four o'clock?"
"Yes, but for what purpose?"
"I am sketching the face of my /Reverie/, of which I spoke to you when I asked you whether Annette might pose for me a few moments. It would render me a great service if I could have her for only an hour to-day. Will you?"
The Countess hesitated, annoyed, without knowing the reason why. But she replied:
"Very well, my friend; we shall be with you at four o'clock."
"Thank you! You are goodness itself!"
He went away to prepare his canvas and study his subject, so that he need not tire his model too much.
Then the Countess went out alone, on foot, to finish her shopping. She went down to the great central streets, then walked slowly up the Boulevard Malesherbes, for she felt as if her limbs were breaking. As she passed Saint Augustin's, she was seized with a desire to enter the church and rest. She pushed open the door, sighed with satisfaction in breathing the cool air of the vast nave, took a chair and sat down.
She was religious as very many Parisians are religious. She believed in God without a doubt, not being able to admit the existence of the universe without the existence of a creator. But associating, as does everyone, the attributes of divinity with the nature of the created matter that she beheld with her own eyes, she almost personified the Eternal God with what she knew of His work, without having a very clear idea as to what this mysterious Maker might really be.
She believed in Him firmly, adored Him theoretically, feared Him very vaguely, for she did not profess to understand His intentions or His will, having a very limited confidence in the priests, whom she regarded merely as the sons of peasants revolting from military service. Her father, a middle-class Parisian, never had imposed upon her any particular principles of devotion, and she had lived on thinking little about religious matters until her marriage. Then, her new station in life indicating more strictly her apparent duties toward the Church, she had conformed punctiliously to this light servitude, as do so many of her station.
She was lady patroness to numerous and very well known infant asylums, never failed to attend mass at one o'clock on Sundays, gave alms for herself directly, and for the world by means of an abbe, the vicar of her parish.
She had often prayed, from a sense of duty, as a soldier mounts guard at a general's door. Sometimes she had prayed because her heart was sad, especially when she suspected Olivier of infidelity to her. At such times, without confiding to Heaven the cause for her appeal, treating God with the same na´ve hypocrisy that is shown to a husband, she asked Him to succor her. When her father died, long before, and again quite recently, at her mother's death, she had had violent crises of religious fervor, and had passionately implored Him who watches over us and consoles us.
And, now behold! to-day, in that church where she had entered by chance, she suddenly felt a profound need to pray, not for some one nor for some thing, but for herself, for herself alone, as she had already prayed the other day at her mother's grave. She must have help from some source, and she called on God now as she had summoned the physician that very morning.
She remained a long time on her knees, in the deep silence of the church, broken only by the sound of footsteps. Then suddenly, as if a clock had struck in her heart, she awoke from her memories, drew out her watch and started to see that it was already four o'clock. She hastened away to take her daughter to the studio, where Olivier must already be expecting them.
They found the artist in his studio, studying upon the canvas the pose of his /Reverie/. He wished to reproduce exactly what he had seen in the Parc Monceau while walking with Annette: a young girl, dreaming, with an open book upon her knees. He had hesitated as to whether he should make her plain or pretty. If she were ugly she would have more character, would arouse more thought and emotion, would contain more philosophy. If pretty, she would be more seductive, would diffuse more charm, and would please better.
The desire to make a study after his little friend decided him. The /Reveuse/ should be pretty, and therefore might realize her poetic vision one day or other; whereas if ugly she would remain condemned to a dream without hope and without end.
As soon as the two ladies entered Olivier said, rubbing his hands:
"Well, Mademoiselle Nane, we are going to work together, it seems!"
The Countess seemed anxious. She sat in an armchair, and watched Olivier as he placed an iron garden-chair in the right light. He opened his bookcase to get a book, then asked, hesitating:
"What does your daughter read?"
"Dear me! anything you like! Give her a volume of Victor Hugo."
"'/La Legende des Siecles/?'"
"That will do."
"Little one, sit down here," he continued, "and take this volume of verse. Look for page--page 336, where you will find a poem entitled 'Les Pauvres Gens.' Absorb it, as one drinks the best wines, slowly, word by word, and let it intoxicate you and move you. Then close the book, raise your eyes, think and dream. Now I will go and prepare my brushes."
He went into a corner to put the colors on his palette, but while emptying on the thin board the leaden tubes whence issued slender,
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