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Raphael was reading the paper. He sat in an armchair wrapped in a dressing-gown with some large pattern on it. The intense melancholy that preyed upon him could be discerned in his languid posture and feeble frame; it was depicted on his brow and white face; he looked like some plant bleached by darkness. There was a kind of effeminate grace about him; the fancies peculiar to wealthy invalids were also noticeable. His hands were soft and white, like a pretty woman's; he wore his fair hair, now grown scanty, curled about his temples with a refinement of vanity.
The Greek cap that he wore was pulled to one side by the weight of its tassel; too heavy for the light material of which it was made. He had let the paper-knife fall at his feet, a malachite blade with gold mounting, which he had used to cut the leaves of the book. The amber mouthpiece of a magnificent Indian hookah lay on his knee; the enameled coils lay like a serpent in the room, but he had forgotten to draw out its fresh perfume. And yet there was a complete contradiction between the general feebleness of his young frame and the blue eyes, where all his vitality seemed to dwell; an extraordinary intelligence seemed to look out from them and to grasp everything at once.
That expression was painful to see. Some would have read despair in it, and others some inner conflict terrible as remorse. It was the inscrutable glance of helplessness that must perforce consign its desires to the depths of its own heart; or of a miser enjoying in imagination all the pleasures that his money could procure for him, while he declines to lessen his hoard; the look of a bound Prometheus, of the fallen Napoleon of 1815, when he learned at the Elysee the strategical blunder that his enemies had made, and asked for twenty-four hours of command in vain; or rather it was the same look that Raphael had turned upon the Seine, or upon his last piece of gold at the gaming-table only a few months ago.
He was submitting his intelligence and his will to the homely common-sense of an old peasant whom fifty years of domestic service had scarcely civilized. He had given up all the rights of life in order to live; he had despoiled his soul of all the romance that lies in a wish; and almost rejoiced at thus becoming a sort of automaton. The better to struggle with the cruel power that he had challenged, he had followed Origen's example, and had maimed and chastened his imagination.
The day after he had seen the diminution of the Magic Skin, at his sudden accession of wealth, he happened to be at his notary's house. A well-known physician had told them quite seriously, at dessert, how a Swiss attacked by consumption had cured himself. The man had never spoken a word for ten years, and had compelled himself to draw six breaths only, every minute, in the close atmosphere of a cow-house, adhering all the time to a regimen of exceedingly light diet. "I will be like that man," thought Raphael to himself. He wanted life at any price, and so he led the life of a machine in the midst of all the luxury around him.
The old professor confronted this youthful corpse and shuddered; there seemed something unnatural about the meagre, enfeebled frame. In the Marquis, with his eager eyes and careworn forehead, he could hardly recognize the fresh-cheeked and rosy pupil with the active limbs, whom he remembered. If the worthy classicist, sage critic, and general preserver of the traditions of correct taste had read Byron, he would have thought that he had come on a Manfred when he looked to find Childe Harold.
"Good day, pere Porriquet," said Raphael, pressing the old schoolmaster's frozen fingers in his own damp ones; "how are you?"
"I am very well," replied the other, alarmed by the touch of that feverish hand. "But how about you?"
"Oh, I am hoping to keep myself in health."
"You are engaged in some great work, no doubt?"
"No," Raphael answered. "Exegi monumemtum, pere Porriquet; I have contributed an important page to science, and have now bidden her farewell for ever. I scarcely know where my manuscript is."
"The style is no doubt correct?" queried the schoolmaster. "You, I hope, would never have adopted the barbarous language of the new school, which fancies it has worked such wonders by discovering Ronsard!"
"My work treats of physiology pure and simple."
"Oh, then, there is no more to be said," the schoolmaster answered. "Grammar must yield to the exigencies of discovery. Nevertheless, young man, a lucid and harmonious style--the diction of Massillon, of M. de Buffon, of the great Racine--a classical style, in short, can never spoil anything----But, my friend," the schoolmaster interrupted himself, "I was forgetting the object of my visit, which concerns my own interests."
Too late Raphael recalled to mind the verbose eloquence and elegant circumlocutions which in a long professorial career had grown habitual to his old tutor, and almost regretted that he had admitted him; but just as he was about to wish to see him safely outside, he promptly suppressed his secret desire with a stealthy glance at the Magic Skin. It hung there before him, fastened down upon some white material, surrounded by a red line accurately traced about its prophetic outlines. Since that fatal carouse, Raphael had stifled every least whim, and had lived so as not to cause the slightest movement in the terrible talisman. The Magic Skin was like a tiger with which he must live without exciting its ferocity. He bore patiently, therefore, with the old schoolmaster's prolixity.
Porriquet spent an hour in telling him about the persecutions directed against him ever since the Revolution of July. The worthy man, having a liking for strong governments, had expressed the patriotic wish that grocers should be left to their counters, statesmen to the management of public business, advocates to the Palais de Justice, and peers of France to the Luxembourg; but one of the popularity-seeking ministers of the Citizen King had ousted him from his chair, on an accusation of Carlism, and the old man now found himself without pension or post, and with no bread to eat. As he played the part of guardian angel to a poor nephew, for whose schooling at Saint Sulpice he was paying, he came less on his own account than for his adopted child's sake, to entreat his former pupil's interest with the new minister. He did not ask to be reinstated, but only for a position at the head of some provincial school.
QRaphael had fallen a victim to unconquerable drowsiness by the time that the worthy man's monotonous voice ceased to sound in his ears. Civility had compelled him to look at the pale and unmoving eyes of the deliberate and tedious old narrator, till he himself had reached stupefaction, magnetized in an inexplicable way by the power of inertia.
"Well, my dear pere Porriquet," he said, not very certain what the question was to which he was replying, "but I can do nothing for you, nothing at all. I WISH VERY HEARTILY that you may succeed----"
All at once, without seeing the change wrought on the old man's sallow and wrinkled brow by these conventional phrases, full of indifference and selfishness, Raphael sprang to his feet like a startled roebuck. He saw a thin white line between the black piece of hide and the red tracing about it, and gave a cry so fearful that the poor professor was frightened by it.
"Old fool! Go!" he cried. "You will be appointed as headmaster! Couldn't you have asked me for an annuity of a thousand crowns rather than a murderous wish? Your visit would have cost me nothing. There are a hundred thousand situations to be had in France, but I have only one life. A man's life is worth more than all the situations in the world.--Jonathan!"
"This is your doing, double-distilled idiot! What made you suggest that I should see M. Porriquet?" and he pointed to the old man, who was petrified with fright. "Did I put myself in your hands for you to tear me in pieces? You have just shortened my life by ten years! Another blunder of this kind, and you will lay me where I have laid my father. Would I not far rather have possessed the beautiful Foedora? And I have obliged that old hulk instead--that rag of humanity! I had money enough for him. And, moreover, if all the Porriquets in the world were dying of hunger, what is that to me?"
Raphael's face was white with anger; a slight froth marked his trembling lips; there was a savage gleam in his eyes. The two elders shook with terror in his presence like two children at the sight of a snake. The young man fell back in his armchair, a kind of reaction took place in him, the tears flowed fast from his angry eyes.
"Oh, my life!" he cried, "that fair life of mine. Never to know a kindly thought again, to love no more; nothing is left to me!"
He turned to the professor and went on in a gentle voice--"The harm is done, my old friend. Your services have been well repaid; and my misfortune has at any rate contributed to the welfare of a good and worthy man."
His tones betrayed so much feeling that the almost unintelligible words drew tears from the two old men, such tears as are shed over some pathetic song in a foreign tongue.
"He is epileptic," muttered Porriquet.
"I understand your kind intentions, my friend," Raphael answered gently. "You would make excuses for me. Ill-health cannot be helped, but ingratitude is a grievous fault. Leave me now," he added. "Tomorrow or the next day, or possibly to-night, you will receive your appointment; Resistance has triumphed over Motion. Farewell."
The old schoolmaster went away, full of keen apprehension as to Valentin's sanity. A thrill of horror ran through him; there had been something supernatural, he thought, in the scene he had passed through. He could hardly believe his own impressions, and questioned them like one awakened from a painful dream.
"Now attend to me, Jonathan," said the young man to his old servant. "Try to understand the charge confided to you."
"Yes, my Lord Marquis."
"I am as a man outlawed from humanity."
"Yes, my Lord Marquis."
"All the pleasures of life disport themselves round my bed of death, and dance about me like fair women; but if I beckon to them, I must die. Death always confronts me. You must be the barrier between the world and me."
"Yes, my Lord Marquis," said the old servant, wiping the drops of perspiration from his wrinkled forehead. "But if you don't wish to see pretty women, how will you manage at the Italiens this evening? An English family is returning to London, and I have taken their box for the rest of the season, and it is in a splendid position--superb; in the first row.
Raphael, deep in his own deep musings, paid no attention to him.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac