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Such were the gratifying expressions exchanged between them.
"Why, it is Raphael!"
"Good! we were looking for you."
"What! it is you, then?"
These three friendly exclamations quickly followed the insults, as the light of a street lamp, flickering in the wind, fell upon the astonished faces of the group.
"My dear fellow, you must come with us!" said the young man that Raphael had all but knocked down.
"What is all this about?"
"Come along, and I will tell you the history of it as we go."
By fair means or foul, Raphael must go along with his friends towards the Pont des Arts; they surrounded him, and linked him by the arm among their merry band.
"We have been after you for about a week," the speaker went on. "At your respectable hotel de Saint Quentin, where, by the way, the sign with the alternate black and red letters cannot be removed, and hangs out just as it did in the time of Jean Jacques, that Leonarda of yours told us that you were off into the country. For all that, we certainly did not look like duns, creditors, sheriff's officers, or the like. But no matter! Rastignac had seen you the evening before at the Bouffons; we took courage again, and made it a point of honor to find out whether you were roosting in a tree in the Champs-Elysees, or in one of those philanthropic abodes where the beggars sleep on a twopenny rope, or if, more luckily, you were bivouacking in some boudoir or other. We could not find you anywhere. Your name was not in the jailers' registers at the St. Pelagie nor at La Force! Government departments, cafes, libraries, lists of prefects' names, newspaper offices, restaurants, greenrooms--to cut it short, every lurking place in Paris, good or bad, has been explored in the most expert manner. We bewailed the loss of a man endowed with such genius, that one might look to find him at Court or in the common jails. We talked of canonizing you as a hero of July, and, upon my word, we regretted you!"
As he spoke, the friends were crossing the Pont des Arts. Without listening to them, Raphael looked at the Seine, at the clamoring waves that reflected the lights of Paris. Above that river, in which but now he had thought to fling himself, the old man's prediction had been fulfilled, the hour of his death had been already put back by fate.
"We really regretted you," said his friend, still pursuing his theme. "It was a question of a plan in which we included you as a superior person, that is to say, somebody who can put himself above other people. The constitutional thimble-rig is carried on to-day, dear boy, more seriously than ever. The infamous monarchy, displaced by the heroism of the people, was a sort of drab, you could laugh and revel with her; but La Patrie is a shrewish and virtuous wife, and willy-nilly you must take her prescribed endearments. Then besides, as you know, authority passed over from the Tuileries to the journalists, at the time when the Budget changed its quarters and went from the Faubourg Saint-Germain to the Chaussee de Antin. But this you may not know perhaps. The Government, that is, the aristocracy of lawyers and bankers who represent the country to-day, just as the priests used to do in the time of the monarchy, has felt the necessity of mystifying the worthy people of France with a few new words and old ideas, like philosophers of every school, and all strong intellects ever since time began. So now Royalist-national ideas must be inculcated, by proving to us that it is far better to pay twelve million francs, thirty-three centimes to La Patrie, represented by Messieurs Such-and-Such, than to pay eleven hundred million francs, nine centimes to a king who used to say _I_ instead of WE. In a word, a journal, with two or three hundred thousand francs, good, at the back of it, has just been started, with a view to making an opposition paper to content the discontented, without prejudice to the national government of the citizen-king. We scoff at liberty as at despotism now, and at religion or incredulity quite impartially. And since, for us, 'our country' means a capital where ideas circulate and are sold at so much a line, a succulent dinner every day, and the play at frequent intervals, where profligate women swarm, where suppers last on into the next day, and light loves are hired by the hour like cabs; and since Paris will always be the most adorable of all countries, the country of joy, liberty, wit, pretty women, mauvais sujets, and good wine; where the truncheon of authority never makes itself disagreeably felt, because one is so close to those who wield it,--we, therefore, sectaries of the god Mephistopheles, have engaged to whitewash the public mind, to give fresh costumes to the actors, to put a new plank or two in the government booth, to doctor doctrinaires, and warm up old Republicans, to touch up the Bonapartists a bit, and revictual the Centre; provided that we are allowed to laugh in petto at both kings and peoples, to think one thing in the morning and another at night, and to lead a merry life a la Panurge, or to recline upon soft cushions, more orientali.
"The sceptre of this burlesque and macaronic kingdom," he went on, "we have reserved for you; so we are taking you straightway to a dinner given by the founder of the said newspaper, a retired banker, who, at a loss to know what to do with his money, is going to buy some brains with it. You will be welcomed as a brother, we shall hail you as king of these free lances who will undertake anything; whose perspicacity discovers the intentions of Austria, England, or Russia before either Russia, Austria or England have formed any. Yes, we will invest you with the sovereignty of those puissant intellects which give to the world its Mirabeaus, Talleyrands, Pitts, and Metternichs--all the clever Crispins who treat the destinies of a kingdom as gamblers' stakes, just as ordinary men play dominoes for Kirschenwasser. We have given you out to be the most undaunted champion who ever wrestled in a drinking-bout at close quarters with the monster called Carousal, whom all bold spirits wish to try a fall with; we have gone so far as to say that you have never yet been worsted. I hope you will not make liars of us. Taillefer, our amphitryon, has undertaken to surpass the circumscribed saturnalias of the petty modern Lucullus. He is rich enough to infuse pomp into trifles, and style and charm into dissipation . . . Are you listening, Raphael?" asked the orator, interrupting himself.
"Yes," answered the young man, less surprised by the accomplishment of his wishes than by the natural manner in which the events had come about.
He could not bring himself to believe in magic, but he marveled at the accidents of human fate.
"Yes, you say, just as if you were thinking of your grandfather's demise," remarked one of his neighbors.
"Ah!" cried Raphael, "I was thinking, my friends, that we are in a fair way to become very great scoundrels," and there was an ingenuousness in his tones that set these writers, the hope of young France, in a roar. "So far our blasphemies have been uttered over our cups; we have passed our judgments on life while drunk, and taken men and affairs in an after-dinner frame of mind. We were innocent of action; we were bold in words. But now we are to be branded with the hot iron of politics; we are going to enter the convict's prison and to drop our illusions. Although one has no belief left, except in the devil, one may regret the paradise of one's youth and the age of innocence, when we devoutly offered the tip of our tongue to some good priest for the consecrated wafer of the sacrament. Ah, my good friends, our first peccadilloes gave us so much pleasure because the consequent remorse set them off and lent a keen relish to them; but nowadays----"
"Oh! now," said the first speaker, "there is still left----"
"What?" asked another.
"There is a word as high as the gallows and deeper than the Seine," said Raphael.
"Oh, you don't understand me; I mean political crime. Since this morning, a conspirator's life is the only one I covet. I don't know that the fancy will last over to-morrow, but to-night at least my gorge rises at the anaemic life of our civilization and its railroad evenness. I am seized with a passion for the miseries of retreat from Moscow, for the excitements of the Red Corsair, or for a smuggler's life. I should like to go to Botany Bay, as we have no Chartreaux left us here in France; it is a sort of infirmary reserved for little Lord Byrons who, having crumpled up their lives like a serviette after dinner, have nothing left to do but to set their country ablaze, blow their own brains out, plot for a republic or clamor for a war----"
"Emile," Raphael's neighbor called eagerly to the speaker, "on my honor, but for the revolution of July I would have taken orders, and gone off down into the country somewhere to lead the life of an animal, and----"
"And you would have read your breviary through every day."
"You are a coxcomb!"
"Why, we read the newspapers as it is!"
"Not bad that, for a journalist! But hold your tongue, we are going through a crowd of subscribers. Journalism, look you, is the religion of modern society, and has even gone a little further."
"What do you mean?"
"Its pontiffs are not obliged to believe in it any more than the people are."
Chatting thus, like good fellows who have known their De Viris illustribus for years past, they reached a mansion in the Rue Joubert.
Emile was a journalist who had acquired more reputation by dint of doing nothing than others had derived from their achievements. A bold, caustic, and powerful critic, he possessed all the qualities that his defects permitted. An outspoken giber, he made numberless epigrams on a friend to his face; but would defend him, if absent, with courage and loyalty. He laughed at everything, even at his own career. Always impecunious, he yet lived, like all men of his calibre, plunged in unspeakable indolence. He would fling some word containing volumes in the teeth of folk who could not put a syllable of sense into their books. He lavished promises that he never fulfilled; he made a pillow of his luck and reputation, on which he slept, and ran the risk of waking up to old age in a workhouse. A steadfast friend to the gallows foot, a cynical swaggerer with a child's simplicity, a worker only from necessity or caprice.
"In the language of Maitre Alcofribas, we are about to make a famous troncon de chiere lie," he remarked to Raphael as he pointed out the flower-stands that made a perfumed forest of the staircase.
"I like a vestibule to be well warmed and richly carpeted," Raphael said. "Luxury in the peristyle is not common in France. I feel as if life had begun anew here."
"And up above we are going to drink and make merry once more, my dear Raphael. Ah! yes," he went on, "and I hope we are going to come off conquerors, too, and walk over everybody else's head."
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac