They had beer, constantly in each other’s society for a whole winter in Paris. After having lost sight of each other, as generally happens in such cases, after leaving college, the two friends met again one night, long years after, already old and white-haired, the one a bachelor, the other married.
M. de Meroul lived six months in Paris and six months in his little château at Tourbeville. Having married the daughter of a gentleman in the district, he had lived a peaceful, happy life with the indolence of a man who has nothing to do. With a calm temperament and a sedate mind, without any intellectual audacity or tendency toward revolutionary independence of thought, he passed his time in mildly regretting the past, in deploring the morals and the institutions of to-day, and in repeating every moment to his wife, who raised her eyes to heaven, and sometimes her hands also, in token of energetic assent:
“Under what a government do we live, great God!”
Madame de Meroul mentally resembled her husband, just as if they had been brother and sister. She knew by tradition that one ought, first of all, to reverence the Pope and the King!
And she loved them and respected them from the bottom of her heart, without knowing them, with a poetic exaltation, with a hereditary devotion, with all the sensibility of a well-born woman. She was kindly in every feeling of her soul. She had no child, and was incessantly regretting it.
When M. de Meroul came across his old schoolfellow Joseph Mouradour at a ball, he experienced from this meeting a profound and genuine delight, for they had been very fond of one another in their youth.
After exclamations of astonishment over the changes caused by age in their bodies and their faces, they had asked one another a number of questions as to their respective careers.
Joseph Mouradour, a native of the south of France, had become a councillor-general in his own neighborhood. Frank in his manners, he spoke briskly and without any circumspection, telling all his thoughts with sheer indifference to prudential considerations. He was a Republican, of that race of good-natured Republicans who make their own ease the law of their existence, and who carry freedom of speech to the verge of brutality.
He called at his friend’s address in Paris, and was immediately a favorite, on account of his easy cordiality, in spite of his advanced opinions. Madame de Meroul exclaimed:
“What a pity! such a charming man!”
M. de Meroul said to his friend, in a sincere and confidential tone: “You cannot imagine what a wrong you do to our country.” He was attached to his friend nevertheless, for no bonds are more solid than those of childhood renewed in later life. Joseph Mouradour chaffed the husband and wife, called them “my loving turtles,” and occasionally gave vent to loud declarations against people who were behind the age, against all sorts of prejudices and traditions.
When he thus directed the flood of his democratic eloquence, the married pair, feeling ill at ease, kept silent through a sense of propriety and good-breeding; then the husband tried to turn off the conversation in order to avoid any friction. Joseph Mouradour did not want to know anyone unless he was free to say what he liked.
Summer came round. The Merouls knew no greater pleasure than to receive their old friends in their country house at Tourbeville. It was an intimate and healthy pleasure, the pleasure of homely gentlefolk who had spent most of their lives in the country. They used to go to the nearest railway station to meet some of their guests, and drove them to the house in their carriage, watching for compliments on their district, on the rapid vegetation, on the condition of the roads in the department, on the cleanliness of the peasants’ houses, on the bigness of the cattle they saw in the fields, on everything that met the eye as far as the edge of the horizon.
They liked to have it noticed that their horse trotted in a wonderful manner for an animal employed a part of the year in field-work; and they awaited with anxiety the newcomer’s opinion on their family estate, sensitive to the slightest word, grateful for the slightest gracious attention.
Joseph Mouradour was invited, and he announced his arrival. The wife and the husband came to meet the train, delighted to have the opportunity of doing the honors of their house.
As soon as he perceived them, Joseph Mouradour jumped out of his carriage with a vivacity which increased their satisfaction. He grasped their hands warmly, congratulated them, and intoxicated them with compliments.
He was quite charming in his manner as they drove along the road to the house; he expressed astonishment at the height of the trees, the excellence of the crops, and the quickness of the horse.
When he placed his foot on the steps in front of the chateau, M. de Meroul said to him with a certain friendly solemnity:
“Now you are at home.”
Joseph Mouradour answered: “Thanks, old fellow; I counted on that. For my part, besides, I never put myself out with my friends. That’s the only hospitality I understand.”
Then he went up to his own room, where he put on the costume of a peasant, as he was pleased to describe it, and he came down again not very long after, attired in blue linen, with yellow boots, in the careless rig-out of a Parisian out for a holiday. He seemed, too, to have become more common, more jolly, more familiar, having assumed along with his would-be rustic garb a free and easy swagger which he thought suited the style of dress. His new apparel somewhat shocked M. and Madame de Meroul, who even at home on their estate always remained serious and respectable, as the particle “de” before their name exacted a certain amount of ceremonial even with their intimate friends.
After lunch they went to visit the farms; and the Parisian stupefied the respectable peasants by talking to them as if he were a comrade of theirs.
In the evening, the curé dined at the house–a fat old priest, wearing his Sunday suit, who had been specially asked that day in order to meet the newcomer.
When Joseph saw him he made a grimace, then he stared at the priest in astonishment as if he belonged to some peculiar race of beings, the like of which he had never seen before at such close quarters. He told a few stories allowable enough with a friend after dinner, but apparently somewhat out of place in the presence of an ecclesiastic. He did not say, “Monsieur l’Abbé,” but merely “Monsieur”; and he embarrassed the priest with philosophical views as to the various superstitions that prevailed on the surface of the globe.
“Your God, Monsieur, is one of those persons whom we must respect, but also one of those who must be discussed. Mine is called Reason; he has from time immemorial been the enemy of yours.”
The Merouls, greatly put out, attempted to divert his thoughts. The curé left very early.
Then the husband gently remarked:
“You went a little too far with that priest.”
But Joseph immediately replied:
“That’s a very good joke, too! Am I to bother my brains about a devil-dodger? At any rate, do me the favor of not ever again having such an old fogy to dinner. Confound his impudence!”
“But, my friend, remember his sacred character.”
Joseph Mouradour interrupted him:
“Yes, I know. We must treat them like girls who get roses for being well behaved! That’s all right, my boy! When these people respect my convictions, I will respect theirs!”
This was all that happened that day.
Next morning Madame de Meroul, on entering her drawing-room, saw lying on the table three newspapers which made her draw back in horror, “Le Voltaire,” “La République Française,” and “La Justice.”
Presently Joseph Mouradour, still in his blue blouse, appeared on the threshold, reading “L’Intransigéant” attentively. He exclaimed:
“Here is a splendid article by Rochefort. That fellow is marvelous.”
He read the article in a loud voice, laying so much stress on its most striking passages that he did not notice the entrance of his friend.
M. de Meroul had a paper in each hand: “Le Gaulois” for himself and “Le Clarion” for his wife.
The ardent prose of the master-writer who overthrew the empire, violently declaimed, recited in the accent of the south, rang through the peaceful drawing-room, shook the old curtains with their rigid folds, seemed to splash the walls, the large upholstered chairs, the solemn furniture fixed in the same position for the past century, with a hail of words, rebounding, impudent, ironical, and crushing.
The husband and the wife, the one standing, the other seated, listened in a state of stupor, so scandalized that they no longer even ventured to make a gesture. Mouradour flung out the concluding passage in the article as one sets off a stream of fireworks; then in an emphatic tone he remarked:
“That’s a stinger, eh?”
But suddenly he perceived the two prints belonging to his friend, and he seemed himself for a moment overcome with astonishment. Then he came across to his host with great strides, demanding in an angry tone:
“What do you want to do with these papers?”
M. de. Meroul replied in a hesitating voice:
“Why, these–these are my–my newspapers.”
“Your newspapers! Look here, now, you are only laughing at me! You will do me the favor to read mine, to stir you up with a few new ideas, and, as for yours–this is what I do with them–”
And before his host, filled with confusion, could prevent him, he seized the two newspapers and flung them out through the window. Then he gravely placed “La Justice” in the hands of Madame de Meroul and “Le Voltaire” in those of her husband, himself sinking into an armchair to finish “L’Intransigéant.”
The husband and the wife, through feelings of delicacy, made a show of reading a little, then they handed back the Republican newspapers which they touched with their finger-tips as if they had been poisoned.
Then Mouradour burst out laughing, and said:
“A week of this sort of nourishment, and I’ll have you converted to my ideas.”
At the end of a week, in fact, he ruled the house. He had shut the door on the curé, whom Madame de Meroul went to see in secret. He gave orders that neither the “Gaulois” nor the “Clarion” were to be admitted into the house, which a manservant went to get in a mysterious fashion at the post-office, and which, on his entrance, were hidden away under the sofa cushions. He regulated everything just as he liked, always charming, always good-natured, a jovial and all-powerful tyrant.
Other friends were about to come on a visit, religious people with Legitimist opinions. The master and mistress of the chateau considered it would be impossible to let them meet their lively guest, and not knowing what to do, announced to Joseph Mouradour one evening that they were obliged to go away from home for a few days about a little matter of business, and they begged of him to remain in the house alone.
He showed no trace of emotion, and replied:
“Very well; ’tis all the same to me; I’ll wait here for you as long as you like. What I say is this–there need be no ceremony between friends. You’re quite right to look after your own affairs–why the devil shouldn’t you? I’ll not take offense at your doing that, quite the contrary. It only makes me feel quite at my ease with you. Go, my friends–I’ll wait for you.”
M. and Madame de Meroul started next morning.
He is waiting for them.