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The story of a young man
By Gustave Flaubert, Dora Knowlton Ranous
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A PROMISING EPISODE
IN FRONT of the Quai St. Bernard, the Ville de Montereau, which was just about to start, was puffing great whirlwinds of smoke. It was six o'clock on the morning of the 15th of September, 1840.
People rushed on board the vessel in frantic haste. The traffic was obstructed by casks, cables, and baskets of linen. The sailors answered no questions. People jostled one another. Between the two paddle-boxes was a heap of parcels; the clamour was drowned in the loud hissing of the steam, which, making its way through the plates of sheet-iron, encompassed everything in a white mist, while the bell at the prow kept continuously ringing.
At last, the vessel drew away; and the banks of the river, crowded with warehouses, timber-yards, and manufactories, opened out like two huge ribbons being unrolled.
A young man about eighteen, with long hair, holding an album under his arm, stood motionless near the helm. Penetrating the haze, he could see steeples, buildings of which he did not know the names; then, with a farewell glance, he observed the Ile St. Louis, the Cité, and Nôtre Dame. As Paris faded from view he heaved a deep sigh.
Frederick Moreau had just taken his Bachelor's degree, and was returning home to Nogent-sur-Seine, where he would have to lead a monotonous existence for two months, before going back to begin his legal studies. His mother had sent him, with enough money to cover his expenses, to Havre to see an uncle, from whom she had expectations of his receiving an inheritance. He had returned from there only yesterday; and he consoled himself for not having been able to spend a little time in the capital by taking the longest possible though less convenient route to reach his own part of the country.
The uproar had subsided. The passengers were all taking their places. Some of them stood warming themselves around the machinery, and the chimney spat forth with a slow, rhythmic rattle its plume of black smoke. Drops of dew glistened on the copper plates; the deck quivered with the vibration from within; and the two paddle-wheels, rapidly turning, lashed the water. The river edges were covered with sand. The vessel swept past rafts of wood which oscillated under the rippling of the waves, or a boat without sails in which a man sat fishing. Then the drifting haze cleared; the sun appeared; the hill which had been visible on the right of the Seine subsided by degrees, and another rose nearer on the opposite bank.
Frederick was thinking about the apartment which he would occupy over there, on the plan of a drama, on subjects for pictures, on future passions. He was beginning to find that the happiness merited by the excellence of his soul was slow in arriving. He declaimed some melancholy verses as he walked rapidly along the deck till he reached the end at which the bell was. In the centre of a group of passengers and sailors he saw a gentleman talking soft nothings to a country-woman, while fingering the gold cross which she wore over her breast. He was a jovial blade of forty, with frizzled hair. He wore a jacket of black velvet, two emeralds sparkled in his cambric shirt, and his wide, white trousers fell over odd-looking red boots of Russia leather ornamented with blue designs.
The presence of Frederick did not discompose him. He turned round and glanced several times at the young man with winks of inquiry. He next offered cigars to all who were standing near him. But, apparently getting tired of their society, he moved away and took a seat further up. Frederick followed him.
The conversation, at first, was on the various kinds of tobacco, then quite naturally it turned into a discussion about women. The gentleman in the red boots gave the younger man advice; he put forward theories, related anecdotes, referred to himself by way of illustration, and he gave utterance to all these things in a paternal tone, with the ingenuousness of entertaining depravity.
He was republican in his opinions. He had travelled; was familiar with the inner life of theatres, restaurants, and newspapers, and knew all the theatrical celebrities, whom he spoke of by their first names. Frederick told him confidentially about his projects; and the elder man took an encouraging view of them.
He stopped talking a moment to take a look at the funnel, then he mumbled rapidly a long calculation in order to ascertain "how much each stroke of the piston at so many times per minute would come to," etc., and, having found the number, he spoke about the scenery, which he admired immensely. Then he expressed his delight at having got away from business.
Frederick regarded him with a certain amount of respect, and politely intimated a desire to know his name. The stranger, without a moment's hesitation, replied:
"Jacques Arnoux, proprietor of L'Art Industriel, Boulevard Montmartre."
A man-servant in a gold-laced cap came up and said:
"Would Monsieur have the kindness to go below? Mademoiselle is crying."
L'Art Industriel was a hybrid establishment, wherein the functions of an art journal and a picture-shop were combined. Frederick remembered seeing this title several times in the bookseller's window in his native place on big prospectuses, on which the name of Jacques Arnoux displayed itself magisterially.
The sun's rays fell perpendicularly, shedding a glittering light on the iron hoops around the masts, the plates of the barricades, and the surface of the water, which, at the prow, was cut into two furrows that spread out as far as the borders of the meadows. At each curve of the river, a screen of pale poplars presented itself with the utmost uniformity. The surrounding country at this point had an empty look. In the sky were little white clouds which remained motionless, and the sense of weariness, which vaguely diffused itself over everything, seemed to retard the progress of the steamboat and to add to the insignificant appearance of the passengers. With the exception of a few persons of good position who were travelling first class, they consisted of artisans or shopmen with their wives and children. It was customary at that time to wear old clothes when travelling, so nearly all had their heads covered with shabby Greek caps or discoloured hats, and wore thin black coats that had become threadbare from constant rubbing against writing-desks, or frockcoats with the casings of their buttons loose from continual service in the shop. Here and there some roll-collar waistcoat afforded a glimpse of a coffee-stained calico shirt. Pinchbeck pins were stuck into torn cravats. List shoes were kept up by stitched straps.
Frederick, in order to get back to his place, pushed against the grating leading into the part of the vessel reserved for first-class passengers, and in so doing disturbed two sportsmen with their dogs.
What he then saw was like a vision. She was seated in the middle of a bench all alone, or, at least it appeared so to him; he could see no one else, dazzled as he was by her eyes.
At the moment when he was passing, she raised her head; his shoulders bent involuntarily; and, when he had seated himself, some little distance away, on the same side, he glanced toward her.
She wore a wide straw hat, the red ribbons of which fluttered in the wind behind her. Her black tresses, braided around the top of her large forehead, descended very low near her cheeks, and seemed amorously to press the oval of her face. Her robe of muslin spotted with green spread out in ample folds. She was embroidering something; and her straight nose, her rounded chin, her entire person was outlined on the background of the luminous air and the blue sky.
As she maintained the same attitude, he took several turns to the right and to the left, hiding from her his change of position; then he placed himself close to her parasol, which lay against the bench, and pretended to be looking at a sloop on the river.
Never before had he seen such a lustrous dark skin, such a seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He gazed with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something unusual. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furnishings of her apartment, with the dresses that she had worn, with the people whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful and boundless curiosity.
A negress, wearing a silk handkerchief tied round her head, appeared, holding by the hand a little girl already tall for her age. The child, whose eyes were swimming in tears, had just awakened. The lady took the little one on her knees. "Mademoiselle was not good, though she would soon be seven; her mother would not love her any more. She was too often forgiven for being naughty." And Frederick heard those things with delight, as if he had made a discovery, an acquisition.
He concluded that she must be of Andalusian descent, perhaps a creole: had she brought this negress with her from the West Indian Islands?
Meanwhile his attention was directed to a long shawl with violet stripes thrown behind her over the copper support of the bench. She must have, many a time, wrapped it around her, as the vessel sped through the waves; drawn it over her feet, gone to sleep in it!
Frederick suddenly noticed that with the sweep of its fringes it was slipping off, and on the point of falling into the water; with a bound he caught it. She said:
"Thank you, Monsieur."
Their eyes met.
"Are you ready, my dear?" cried my lord Arnoux, presenting himself at the hood of the companion-ladder.
Mademoiselle Marthe ran over to him, and, clinging to his neck, she began pulling at his moustache. The strains of a harp were heard—she wanted to see the music played; and presently the performer on the instrument, at the request of the negress, entered the place reserved for saloon passengers. Arnoux recognised in him a man who had formerly been a model, and "thou'd" him, to the astonishment of the by-standers. At length the harpist, flinging back his long hair, stretched out his hands and began playing.
It was an Oriental ballad all about poniards, flowers, and stars. The man in rags sang it in a sharp voice; the twanging of the harp-strings broke the harmony of the tune with false notes. He played more vigorously: the chords vibrated, and their metallic sounds seemed to emit sobs, and, as it were, the plaint of a proud and vanquished love. On both sides of the river, woods reached down to the edge of the water. A current of fresh air swept past, and Madame Arnoux gazed vaguely into the distance. When the music stopped, she moved her eyes as if she were starting out of a dream.
The harpist approached them with an air of humility. While Arnoux was searching his pockets for money, Frederick stretched out toward the cap his closed hand, and then, opening it in a shamefaced manner, he deposited in the cap a louis d'or. It was not vanity that had prompted him to bestow this alms in her presence, but the hope of a blessing in which he felt she might share—an almost religious impulse of the heart.
Arnoux, leading the way, cordially invited him to go below. Frederick replied that he had just lunched; on the contrary, he was nearly dying of hunger; but he had not a single centime in his purse.
After that, it seemed to him that he had as much right as anyone else to remain in the cabin.
Ladies and gentlemen were seated before round tables, lunching, while an attendant went about serving coffee. Monsieur and Madame Arnoux were in the extreme right-hand corner. He seated himself on the long bench covered with velvet, picking up a newspaper which he found there.
They would have to take the diligence at Montereau for Châlons. Their tour in Switzerland would last a month. Madame Arnoux blamed her husband for his weakness with the child. He whispered in her ear; it was evidently something agreeable, for she smiled. Then he rose to draw down the window curtain at her back. Under the low, white ceiling, a crude light filled the cabin. Frederick, sitting opposite, could distinguish the shadow made by her eyelashes. She just moistened her lips at her glass and broke a little piece of crust between her fingers. The lapis-lazuli locket fastened by a gold chain to her wrist made a ringing sound, every now and then, as it touched her plate. Those present, however, did not appear to notice it.
At intervals one could see, through the port-holes, the side of a boat which was taking away passengers or putting them on board. Those who sat round the tables looked through the openings, and called out the names of the various places they passed along the river.
Arnoux complained of the cooking. He grumbled particularly at the amount of the bill, and had it reduced. Then he carried off the young man toward the forecastle to drink a glass of grog with him. But Frederick speedily returned to gaze at Madame Arnoux, who had gone back to her seat under the awning. She was reading a thin, grey-covered volume. From time to time the corners of her mouth curled and a gleam of pleasure lighted up her face. He felt jealous of the author of a book which appeared to interest her so much. The more he contemplated her, the more he felt that there were yawning abysses between them. He was reflecting that he should very soon lose sight of her irrevocably, and without having extracted a few words from her, without leaving her even a souvenir!
On the right, a plain was visible. On the left, a strip of pasture-land rose gently to meet a hillock where one could see vineyards, groups of walnut-trees, a mill embedded in the grassy slopes, and, beyond that, little zigzag paths over a white mass of rocks that reached up toward the clouds. What bliss it would have been to ascend side by side with her, his arm around her waist, as her gown swept the yellow leaves, listening to her voice and gazing into her glowing eyes! The steamboat might stop, and all they would have to do would be to step right out; and yet this thing, simple as it seemed, was not less difficult than it would have been to alter the course of the sun.
The little girl kept skipping playfully around the place where he had stationed himself on the deck. Frederick tried to kiss her. She hid herself behind her nurse. Her mother scolded her for not being nice to the gentleman who had rescued her own shawl. Was this an indirect overture?
"Is she going to speak to me?" he asked himself.
Time was flying. How was he to get an invitation to the Arnoux's house? And he could think of nothing better than to draw her attention to the autumnal hues, adding:
"We are approaching winter—the season of balls and dinner-parties."
But Arnoux was entirely occupied with his luggage. They had arrived at the river's bank facing Surville. The two bridges drew nearer. They passed a ropewalk, then a range of low-built houses, inside which there were pots of tar and splinters of wood; and children ran along the sand turning head over heels. Frederick recognised a man with a sleeved waistcoat, and called out to him:
They were at the landing-place. He looked around anxiously for Arnoux amongst the crowd of passengers, and presently the other came and shook hands with him, saying:
"A pleasant time, Monsieur!"
When he was on the quay, Frederick looked back. She was standing beside the helm. He cast a look toward her into which he tried to put his whole soul. She remained motionless, as if nothing had happened. Then, without paying the slightest attention to the obeisances of his manservant:
"Why is not the trap here?"
The man made excuses.
"Clumsy fellow! Give me some money."
And after that he went off to get something to eat at an inn.
A quarter of an hour later, he felt an inclination to turn into the coachyard, as if by chance. He might see her again.
"What's the use?" he said to himself.
The vehicle carried him off. The two horses did not belong to his mother. She had borrowed one from M. Chambrion, the tax-collector. Isidore, having set forth the day before, had taken a rest at Bray until evening, and had slept at Montereau, so that the animals, with restored vigour, were trotting briskly.
Fields on which the crops had been cut stretched out in apparently endless succession; and by degrees Villeneuve, St. Georges, Ablon, Châtillon, Corbeil, and the other places—his entire journey—came back to his mind with such vividness that he could recall fresh details, more intimate particulars. . . . Under the lowest flounce of her gown, her foot showed itself encased in a dainty silk boot of maroon shade. The awning made of ticking formed a wide canopy over her head, and the little red tassels of the edging kept trembling in the breeze.
Excerpted from Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, Dora Knowlton Ranous. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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