Now that she no longer trembled before him, had she become contemptuously surprised at having trembled at all? She had finished tying her bonnet strings, and stood ready gloved, with her hands hanging by her side, and yet she did not go, but stared straight in front of her.
As her eyes met the big canvas turned to the wall she felt a wish to see it, but did not dare to ask. Nothing detained her; still she seemed to be looking around as if she had forgotten something there, something which she could not name. At last she stepped towards the door. Claude was already opening it, and a small loaf placed erect against the post tumbled into the studio.
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My doorkeeper brings the bread up every morning. She again refused with a shake of the head. When she was on the landing she turned round, and for a moment remained quite still. Her gay smile had come back; she was the first to hold out her hand. He had taken her small gloved hand within his large one, all pastel-stained as it was.
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Both hands remained like that for a few moments, closely and cordially pressed. He was furious — furious with himself, furious with everyone. Kicking about the furniture, he continued to ease his feelings in a loud voice. Was not he right in never allowing them to cross his threshold?
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What proof had he after all that yonder chit with the innocent look, who had just gone, had not fooled him most abominably? And he had been silly enough to believe in her cock-and-bull stories! All his suspicions revived. Did such things ever happen in real life? Besides, that mouth of hers told a strange tale, and her looks had been very singular just as she was going. How she must be laughing at him by this time. He roughly folded up the screen and sent it flying into a corner.
She had no doubt left all in disorder. And when he found that everything was in its proper place — basin, towel, and soap — he flew into a rage because she had not made the bed. With a great deal of fuss he began to make it himself, lifting the mattress in his arms, banging the pillow about with his fists, and feeling oppressed by the pure scent of youth that rose from everything.
Then he had a good wash to cool himself, and in the damp towel he found the same virgin fragrance, which seemed to spread through the studio. Swearing the while, he drank his chocolate from the saucepan, so excited, so eager to set to work, as to swallow large mouthfuls of bread without taking breath. After all, the sun had shifted, and it was far less hot. But he opened a small window on a level with the roof, and inhaled, with an air of profound relief, the whiff of warm air that entered. IT had struck twelve, and Claude was working at his picture when there was a loud, familiar knock at the door.
After which he decided to open the door. Pierre Sandoz, a friend of his boyhood, was about twenty-two, very dark, with a round and determined head, a square nose, and gentle eyes, set in energetic features, girt round with a sprouting beard. The devil! Then came a long pause; they both kept staring at the canvas. It measured about sixteen feet by ten, and was entirely painted over, though little of the work had gone beyond the roughing-out. This roughing-out, hastily dashed off, was superb in its violence and ardent vitality of colour.
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A flood of sunlight streamed into a forest clearing, with thick walls of verdure; to the left, stretched a dark glade with a small luminous speck in the far distance. On the grass, amidst all the summer vegetation, lay a nude woman with one arm supporting her head, and though her eyes were closed she smiled amidst the golden shower that fell around her.
In the background, two other women, one fair, and the other dark, wrestled playfully, setting light flesh tints amidst all the green leaves. And, as the painter had wanted something dark by way of contrast in the foreground, he had contented himself with seating there a gentleman, dressed in a black velveteen jacket. This gentleman had his back turned and the only part of his flesh that one saw was his left hand, with which he was supporting himself on the grass. Claude, with his eyes blazing in front of his picture, made a gesture of confidence.
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Sandoz, out of pure friendship, and to save Claude the cost of a model, had offered to pose for the gentleman in the foreground. In four or five Sundays, the only day of the week on which he was free, the figure would be finished. He was already donning the velveteen jacket, when a sudden reflection made him stop. Just go down and have a cutlet while I wait here. The idea of losing time revolted Claude.
Look at the saucepan. Come, to work, to work, lazy-bones. Are you ready? The hand more to the left, and your head a little more forward. Having arranged some cushions, Sandoz settled himself on the couch in the required attitude. His back was turned, but all the same the conversation continued for another moment, for he had that very morning received a letter from Plassans, the little Provencal town where he and the artist had known each other when they were wearing out their first pairs of trousers on the eighth form of the local college.
However, they left off talking. The one was working with his mind far away from the world, while the other grew stiff and cramped with the sleepy weariness of protracted immobility. It was only when Claude was nine years old that a lucky chance had enabled him to leave Paris and return to the little place in Provence, where he had been born. But in spite of their endeavours, they failed to make both ends meet.
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Hence they gladly accepted the offer of an elderly and well-to-do townsman to send the lad to school and keep him with him. It was the generous freak of an eccentric amateur of painting, who had been struck by the little figures that the urchin had often daubed. And thus for seven years Claude had remained in the South, at first boarding at the college, and afterwards living with his protector.
The latter, however, was found dead in his bed one morning. He left the lad a thousand francs a year, with the faculty of disposing of the principal when he reached the age of twenty-five. At the College of Plassans, while still in the lowest form, Claude Lantier, Pierre Sandoz, and another lad named Louis Dubuche, had been three inseparables.
When he had died, heart-broken by the petty local jealousy that had sought to hamper him in every way, his widow had found herself in so involved a position, and burdened with so many tangled law suits, that the whole of her remaining means were swallowed up. She was a native of Burgundy. As for Dubuche, he was the son of a baker of Plassans. Pushed by his mother, a covetous and ambitious woman, he had joined his friends in Paris later on.
He was attending the courses at the School of Arts as a pupil architect, living as best he might upon the last five-franc pieces that his parents staked on his chances, with the obstinacy of usurers discounting the future at the rate of a hundred per cent. Can I move for a moment? Claude let him stretch himself without answering. He was now working at the velveteen jacket, laying on the colour with thick strokes, However, stepping backward and blinking, he suddenly burst into loud laughter at some reminiscence. And how frightened Lalubie was when, before going to his desk, he opened the cupboard to take his books, and found it transformed into a mortuary chapel?
Five hundred lines to every one in the form. The old hack is marrying a pretty girl. Once on the subject of their recollections there was no stopping them, though Claude went on painting with growing feverishness, while Pierre, still turned towards the wall, spoke over his shoulders, shaking every now and then with excitement. First of all came recollections of the college, the old, dank convent, that extended as far as the town ramparts; the two courtyards with their huge plane trees; the slimy sedge-covered pond, where they had learned to swim, and the class-rooms with dripping plaster walls on the ground floor; then the refectory, with its atmosphere constantly poisoned by the fumes of dish-water; the dormitory of the little ones, famous for its horrors, the linen room, and the infirmary, full of gentle sisters, nuns in black gowns who looked so sweet beneath their white coifs.
Then they passed the whole college staff in review; a pitiful, grotesque, and terrible procession it was, with such heads as are seen on meerschaum pipes, and profiles instinct with hatred and suffering. There were others still: Spontini, the ferocious usher, with his Corsican knife, rusty with the blood of three cousins; little Chantecaille, who was so good-natured that he allowed the pupils to smoke when out walking; and also a scullion and a scullery maid, two ugly creatures who had been nicknamed Paraboulomenos and Paralleluca, and who were accused of kissing one another over the vegetable parings.
Then came comical reminiscences; the sudden recollection of practical jokes, at which they shook with laughter after all those years. And then that winter evening when they had bagged some matches lying near the lamp in the chapel, in order to smoke dry chestnut leaves in reed pipes.
Sandoz, who had been the ringleader on that occasion, now frankly avowed his terror; the cold perspiration that had come upon him when he had scrambled out of the choir, wrapt in darkness. And again there was the day when Claude had hit upon the sublime idea of roasting some cockchafers in his desk to see whether they were good to eat, as people said they were. So terrible had been the stench, so dense the smoke that poured from the desk, that the usher had rushed to the water pitcher, under the impression that the place was on fire.
And then their marauding expeditions; the pillaging of onion beds while they were out walking; the stones thrown at windows, the correct thing being to make the breakage resemble a well-known geographical map. Also the Greek exercises, written beforehand in large characters on the blackboard, so that every dunce might easily read them though the master remained unaware of it; the wooden seats of the courtyard sawn off and carried round the basin like so many corpses, the boys marching in procession and singing funeral dirges.
Dubuche, who played the priest, had tumbled into the basin while trying to scoop some water into his cap, which was to serve as a holy water pot. But the most comical and amusing of all the pranks had perhaps been that devised by Pouillaud, who one night had fastened all the unmentionable crockery of the dormitory to one long string passed under the beds. At dawn — it was the very morning when the long vacation began — he had pulled the string and skedaddled down the three flights of stairs with this frightful tail of crockery bounding and smashing to pieces behind him.
At the recollection of this last incident, Claude remained grinning from ear to ear, his brush suspended in mid-air. What is he doing now? You ought to see the style he has already assumed — all the idiotic austerity of a philistine, who has turned over a new leaf.
Then they relapsed again into reminiscences, but such as made their hearts thump; the remembrance of the many happy days they had spent far away from the college, in the open air and the full sunlight.