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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 2. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
page: 179


WHEN I went back to Paris, I fell in with that beautiful and most unhappy woman whose head and neck were so strangely the human representation of the Ionic column, and who was one of the most pronounced of the man-haters and woman-defenders of her time. Sex with her determined everything. To be a man was to be a monster; to be a woman was to be probably a saint and certainly a victim. The most manifest perjury, if of a woman against a man, she received without examination and believed without doubt; and she justified all page: 180 viragoes on the ground of the provocation received by the sex, if not individually by themselves—a provocation which called for and glorified reprisals and revenge.

Through her I knew one who had been in her day the most famous of our tragic actresses, till she married and made herself the most miserable of wives, and her husband as wretched as herself. The deep voice and stage-stateliness of manner, the assumption of supremacy and really cruel strength of this lady, crushed me flat. The way in which she levelled her big black eyes at me, and calmly put her foot on me, was an experience never to be forgotten. The pitiless brutality of her contradictions; her scathing sarcasm; her contemptuous taunts, knowing that I was unable to answer her; the way in which she used her matured powers to wound and hurt my even then immature nature, gave me a page: 181 certain shuddering horror for her, such as I fancy a man would feel for one who had flayed him in the market-place. I am thankful to Fate which never threw us together again.

Years after, I knew her yet more gifted sister in Rome. She was a very different person—as womanly as this other was virile; as sweet and generous and sympathetic as this other was arbitrary insolent, and inhuman. A characteristic little trait of the former was told me, instancing, to my way of thinking, the stony and unyielding quality of her mind. She was used to number all her dresses and hang them up in rows. If it came to the turn of her gold tissue to be worn, she would wear it, though she might be going to a simple family dinner; if it were the turn for a morning silk, she would wear that, though she had to appear at a stately ball. This was her method of expressing order; and in this page: 182 apparently insignificant little habit may be seen the germ of all she was and did, and the cause of all she suffered and made others suffer.

My lady the Ionic column was continually going over to Paris, which she anathematized when she got there. She used to say with vehemence that it was the worst city in the world; and I have seen her shudder with horror as she spoke. As I had not then peeped behind the screen, I thought her both prejudiced and fantastical, as well as illogical for voluntarily living so much in a place she held to be good only for fiends and satyrs. I used to listen to her with frank amazement. Taken up as I was with my work, and satisfied with life as it came to me on the broad highway, I had neither time nor inclination for excursions into dark passages and shameful byways. Therefore I had seen nothing of all the vice she so strongly page: 183 deprecated, and I did not believe in it. Moreover, I thought it then, and I think it now, the wisest plan to take the apparent good as it offers itself, and leave untouched those hidden evils which do not of themselves leap to our eyes, and with which we have no official concern.

Certainly I went about a little to doubtful places, as all young people do. Mabille was then in its glory; La Closerie des Lilas was just opened; and the Bals de l'Opera were also things for strangers to see. The students and grisettes who danced the can-can and did their extraordinary steps at these places, seem to me to have been different from the men and women who haunt the public dancing-halls to-day. The fun and frolic, if decidedly fast and more than ‘risqué,’ was more spontaneous, less professional, less commercial and calculated than now, and the whole style of thing was simpler. It was all the difference between the grisette and page: 184 the cocotte—the student of the Quartier Latin and the ‘petit crévé’ of the Boulevard Italien.

One painful and horrible face dwells in my memory. I forget the man's name, but he had been the wealthy son of a master-baker, who had ruined himself at Mabille and all that this represented. He was now an old man, penniless, and supported by the charity of the Administration on which he had spent his large inheritance; but, old as he was, he danced with the lightness of a youth and the look and bearing of a satyr. His face was entirely that of the legendary satyr; and I looked for the pointed ears and goat's legs. He was the most suggestive and degraded specimen of European humanity possible to see, and might have been taken as a living text for any number of sermons you will.

My greatest pleasure, however, was not found in dancing-places, but in the quiet page: 185 country about Paris. I used to go for long walks and excursions to Vincennes and Versailles, St. Germains, and Fontainebleau, Asnières, Ville d'Avray, and the like; and I was never so happy as when noting some new aspect of nature. For among the contradictions with which my life is full is that of the most passionate love for nature and voluntary residence in towns. From quite early childhood I had this delight in nature, and I remember things which struck me even when I was so small a boy that I was frightened by finding myself alone in the garden:—as, that dark cloud which hung over our ‘burgomaster’ mountain to the north, while the vale below and the hills around were bathed in sunshine; that double rainbow which spanned the whole vale; those big drops of the thunder-shower; the revelation of folds and secondary peaks in the mountains opposite by a sudden outburst of sunlight, and then the sinking back page: 186 into an undifferentiated mass when that sunlight passed. I cannot date the first times when I noticed these phenomena; but they were in quite early days, standing out from the chaotic darkness of the rest. I remember when I first noted the different shapes of certain buds of trees, e.g., the difference between those of the horse-chestnut and the lime; I can yet put back certain rosebushes and honeysuckles found in the hedges; and, if it still exists as a field, I could walk straight to that corner of the field where I once found what I suppose must have been an oxlip. But it is more than fifty years since I have seen the place.

I remember the smell of the laurestinus and the bay-trees the first evening we arrived at my father's Kentish home; and the kind of awe with which those two cedars in the shrubbery opposite inspired me. I remember certain days of snowstorm when the fast-falling flakes were driven before the page: 187 pitiless wind, and I gave them the pain of hunted creatures as they were hounded on—now in eddying circles, and now in straight lines. I remember how the rain one day came down like a white sheet at Eden; and I can still see my father going through the garden gate to Sunday morning duty, struggling against the wind, and half shrouded within the cascade of rain, of which also I remember thinking it was a return of the Deluge. Certain sunsets are yet plainly visible to my mental eye; and the new flowers I found in the fields and woods and waste places about Paris are photographed on my memory, as are the sunsets and the flowers of later years, seen and found in beloved Italy.

And yet, the rush and grandeur of human life in London and Paris, and the sense of being in the heart of all this emotional and intellectual movement, were more fascinating to me than even the beauty and the page: 188 peace of nature. Hence the want of consistency which has marked my career from first to last has its part in the apparent contradiction of delighting in every circumstance and manifestation of nature, and electing to live in cities.

Through Léon O'Byrne I became acquainted with a typical Frenchwoman of a certain kind—one Mademoiselle Cléonice. Though in a small way, she was the real ‘femme de commerce’ of Paris; and to know her was to know a whole class. She was about thirty-five years of age, trim, neat, plump, tight, sharp. She was not pretty when dissected bit by bit, but she was ‘arranged’ with such faultless taste as to be charming and attractive on the whole. She was always dressed in black silk or soft black stuff, without frills or furbelows of any kind; and her gowns had that wonderful look of having been moulded on her, like a second skin, which page: 189 is so peculiarly French. She wore linen collars and cuffs of scrupulous whiteness; round her neck was a small narrow handkerchief tied in a bow; and the smartest and prettiest kind of cap, made of filmy lace trimmed with pink ribbon, took off the severity of her smoothly braided blue-black hair. She was the trimmest and best got up little woman of the quarter, and was never seen with a thread awry.

She lived in the small room behind her smaller shop, where she sold laces, caps, embroidery and other feminine finery; and her room was as neat as herself. The mahogany bed was in an alcove concealed by curtains; the toilet apparatus was in a dark closet to the side. The mahogany furniture and crimson velvet chairs; the white muslin curtains tied with pink ribbon, hour-glass fashion; the ormolu clock and candelabra on the marble chimney-piece; the chimney-glass and marble-topped mahogany page: 190 drawers; the red velvet sofa and the red velvet fauteuil—all were signs of bien-être, approaching to luxury for one of her class; and all were of a cleanliness, an order, that was of itself artistic poverty and scientific beauty.

Her way of life was typical. She lived absolutely alone, without a servant or assistant; but a ‘femme de journée’ came every morning to sweep and dust; a man from the street took down and put up her shutters; her food was sent in from a ‘traiteur's’ hard by; and when she wanted a holiday, she put up her shutters, locked the door, took the key in her pocket, and was free of all restraints. Thus she kept her apartment intact and undisturbed, and where she hid away her loose ends was a marvel.

In manner she was at once fascinating and provocative, petulant and caressing. She had a high-pitched voice and an irrit- irritable page: 191 able way of speaking, as if always somewhat injured by some one and always complaining of something. Her temper was uncertain and easily ruffled, though it was never violent and as little enthusiastic; and her whole life was based on calculation. Passions, affections, chances, duties, sins, self-restraint, or the reverse, all made a sum in the living arithmetic of her days—so much to be gained by such and such an action, so much to be lost. She could not have loved nor hated without this balancing of her mental books; and of all the people ever known to me, she was the least spontaneous. She was also slanderous and spiteful to an appalling extent, and could not speak well of anyone. According to her, all the women she knew were ‘drôleuses,’—all the men ‘coquins,’ when not ‘vauriens’ nor brigands. She despised the English, now for their mathematical coldness, now, like Madame la Marquise, for their unmathema- unmathematical page: 192 tical romance. The Italians she considered sinks of iniquity as fathomless as the Pit whence they came and whither they would return. But her own people were even worse; and of the ten righteous men who might have saved Paris, could they but be found, she denied the existence of more than one. Of one person only she forebore to speak evil, though she also never committed herself so far as to speak good.

This was a certain M. Bolivard, an elderly man, who wore very loose clothes and a very white waistcoat; obese, loose-lipped, sharp-eyed; with a skin like yellow ivory, and a black head, clipped close like a clothes-brush. He was the landlord, patron, and book-keeper of the trim little ‘lingère,’ and came regularly on Wednesday and Saturday evenings to inspect her accounts and see how she was getting on. On these days she was always in an atrocious humour, and Léon, who was a page: 193 pet of hers, was forbidden her place after four in the afternoon, as if he would have brought the plague.

From Mademoiselle Cléonice I learnt a good deal about the commercial class all round; and if half she told me were true, and the present is like the past, Zola has not exaggerated. The corruption of the ‘petite bourgeoisie’ is as complete as that of the ‘haute volée;’ and no strokes are too broad, no ink too black, by which the inventory of their vices is made. But her own vice of slander made me hesitate before I believed all the rest, and the homely old saying about the pot and the kettle took off a good layer of soot from the latter. Still, she was a bright little companion, so far as she went; and if she went no deeper than the froth in champagne, it was always champagne that frothed; and her repartee was as smart as her mind was shallow.

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The most important of my Parisian friends, however, was Madame de Clairvaux, a Parisienne born and bred, who knew Paris and the whole art and mystery of life there, as she used to say, ‘comme sa poche.’ Her revelations were even more startling than those of Mademoiselle Cléonice, and more trustworthy, because neither spiteful nor made for the purpose of a disguise. She made them quite freely and impartially, almost scientifically. As I was young, a man of letters and a student of humanity, she said I ought to know the truth of things. And though I thought I did, pretty accurately, I certainly did not know so much before Madame de Clairvaux undertook to enlighten me as I did after.

The apotheosis of the demi-monde was just then beginning. The ‘Dame aux Camellias,’ with Madame Doche and Fechter as Marguerite and Armand, had made all Paris weep, and had still further loosened page: 195 the joints of its never too stiffly buckramed virtue. But it seemed to me impossible to know where the demi-monde began and where it left off, save in the matter of public notoriety. Of Madame de Clairvaux's own friends—all women of good family, good social standing and apparent repute—there was not one who did not belong to that famous basket of speckled peaches—not one who had not qualified herself for condemnation on account of that Damyan of hers hidden among the leaves.

Some of Madame de Clairvaux's stories were wonderfully graphic and romantic; and some read hardly like truth as we have it in this sober age of prose and commerce. For instance, that anecdote of Madame de Niemand—who kept her lover for six weeks in secret in the loft of her country-house, while her husband was absent, and only she, her child and her sister, were at Ville Saint-Jean; the droll page: 196 expedients she had to adopt to give him food, fresh air and exercise; her foraging expeditions in the kitchen at night, after the servants had gone to bed; the cook's amazement at the disappearance of his stores, and the awful burden which that midnight appetite of ‘Mademoiselle Marie ma sœur’ had to bear; the rambles in the woods and grounds, under the stars, of the two lovers who more than once were taken for ‘lutins’ and ‘les dames blanches,’ and once ran great risk of being fired on as robbers; and the wild mad happiness of the time—it was a romance from preface to colophon. But had it been written in a novel, the critics would have been down on the author as an absurd bungler who imagined things out of the line of possibility. Yet it was all true; and Madame de Clairvaux knew it. Another time Madame de Niemand, who was as beautiful as an angel, slipped away from a ball where she was and her lover page: 197 was not. He was a poor artist, by the way, and lived in a garret. Suddenly there appeared before him a vision which, for a moment, he took to be unreal. Madame de Niemand in her ball-dress of pale pink and silver, her cloak thrown off, her hands held out, stood there in that dingy garret like the incarnation of beauty, love and riches; and for a moment he lost his senses and swooned at her feet. The contrast between his poverty and her splendour was too great, and the joy, so unexpected, was too strong.

The little daughter born of this intrigue was the husband's favourite of the whole family, and the one in whom he took the greatest pride. As for suspicion of his wife, he had not the faintest trace. On the contrary, with this child on his knee he said to his friend, the lover in question:

‘Of one thing I am perfectly sure, Emmeline has never deceived me.’

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‘You may swear that by the life of your mother,’ said the lover calmly, laying his hand caressingly on the child's fair head.

‘So much for the pretty theory of natural affection and the instincts,’ said Madame de Clairvaux when she had finished, with an odd smile, and a rapid glance at Henri and Alphonsine, playing demurely in the corner—Henri the rosy blondin, the very counterpart of her fair Norman husband, while his little sister was as black as a morella cherry.

She told me many other things—always on the same lines; till I began to feel that no such thing as womanly virtue nor manly constancy was left in the world, and that Mrs. Hulme was right:—It was only a question of the eleventh commandment and the comparative security of the door.

During my stay in France I went to a pension near Tours, where M. and Madame de Blainville, and M. and Madame Saint- page: 199 Georges, were living. M. de Blainville was, and had been for many years, ‘le bon ami’ of Madame Saint-Georges. Meanwhile, he had married and she had cooled. He had not. He had married for money, and his love remained intact. As for principle, that did not come into the arrangement. In this house I fell into the heart of mysteries and intrigues, where I was used now as a tool and now as a mask; and where, in the beginning, I understood nothing, neither what I did nor what I concealed, nor yet what was passing around me.

It was emphatically diamond cut diamond with M. de Blainville and Madame Saint-Georges; a game at chess with lives and hearts for pawns and queens, a duel ‘à outrance,’ where the rapiers were none the less deadly at the points for being covered with velvet at the hilts. Madame Saint-Georges had transferred her affections from page: 200 her old lover, whose marriage she had never forgiven, to a handsome young fellow in the neighbourhood, to whom such an adventure was a godsend. M. de Blainville, suspecting what was going on, set his wits to work to prove what he feared. He had the light tread and the supple spring of a panther, and no one ever knew where he was nor where he might not appear when least expected. He used to say that he was going away for the whole day, but he would conceal himself in the branches of a tree which served as a kind of watch-tower whence he could see all that went on; and night and day he stole about the house and grounds, noiselessly, untiringly, watching with the vigilance of jealousy for the moment of conviction. I lived on the ground-floor; and I slept with my windows open; safe against intruders by strong iron stanchions and bars. Often at dead of night I used to be awakened page: 201 by M. de Blainville suddenly calling me by my name; and two or three times during the morning, as I sat there doing my work, a shadow would fall across my paper, and I would look up to see those dark gleaming eyes shining from beneath the broad sombrero as M. de Blainville said to me curtly ‘Good-day,’ and passed on, satisfied that I at least was innocently employed.

At last he was rewarded. During one of his nocturnal prowls, when he was believed to be in Paris and had been hidden all day in the woods, he saw a rope-ladder hanging down from a certain window, not too high for a courageous man's leap. Up this ladder he crept like a cat, and sprang lightly into the room. There was a woman's smothered cry; a dumb struggle between two men; then a bold leap into the dark; and Madame Saint-Georges had lost the game.

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That winter in Paris was a tremendous thermometrical experience. The water used to be frozen hard in my tub, and I have often cut myself as with a knife with the icicles in my sponge. One day my milk froze on the top of my inefficient stove; and I never knew cold as I knew it then. But it was all experience, both moral and physical, both social and ethical.

After about two years of this strange life I was summoned back to England at a moment's notice; and I had to leave just in time to escape some unpleasantness to this day unverified. A general illumination had been ordered for the Emperor's birthday, and each householder had been warned to light all his lamps and candles, and make as brave a show in his window and on the balconies as was possible. In my Republican pride and youthful folly I declined to add my quota; and my special window remained dark. The next day I was summoned to page: 203 appear at the Prefecture. As I was leaving that night, and the summons was for the next day, I could not go.

So the thing passed, and I heard no more of it. I knew that I had committed no crime and broken no law; though now I acknowledge that I had offended against good-breeding in refusing to conform to the regulations of the country which gave me hospitality. The fact, however, of being ‘wanted by the police’ was in itself a little disturbing, and I was glad to be out of it. The Empire had a long arm and a heavy hand; and if I was hot-headed and absurd, the Government was tyrannous and unscrupulous; and between the two it was I who would have got worst off.