RQo21U

RQo21U

In a mechanical kind of way Madame Caroline looked at the superscriptions, and perceived in the pile a letter from her[Pg 230] brother addressed to herself. It came from Damascus, where Hamelin was then staying, making arrangements for the proposed branch line from that city to Beyrout. At first she began to glance over the letter, standing near the lamp, and resolving that she would read it more carefully later on in the train. But each sentence held her attention, she was unable to skip a word; and she finally sat down again at the table, and gave herself up to the absorbing perusal of this long letter, which filled twelve pages.

Hamelin happened to be in one of his gayest moods. He thanked his sister for the last good news which she had sent him from Paris, and sent her still better news in return, for everything, said he, was going to his liking. The first balance-sheet of the United Steam Navigation Company promised well; the new steamships were realising large receipts, thanks to their perfect equipment and superior speed. He jokingly said that folks travelled in them for pleasure, and pointed to the sea-ports invaded by tourists from the Western world, and declared that he could not make a journey by highway or byway without coming face to face with some Parisian of the Boulevards. As he had foreseen, it was really the East opened up to France. Cities, said he, would before long spring up on the fertile slopes of the Lebanon range. But particularly did he give a vivid picture of the lonely Carmel gorge, where the silver mine was now being actively worked. The savage site was being humanised; springs had been discovered amidst the gigantic pile of fallen rocks which barred the valley on the north; and fields were being formed, wheat was replacing the mastic-trees, whilst a whole village had sprung up near the mines, at first merely some wooden cabins, huts to shelter the workmen, but now little stone-built houses with gardens—the beginning of a city which would continue growing so long as the veins were not exhausted. There were now nearly five hundred inhabitants on the spot, and a road had just been finished connecting the village with Saint Jean d'Acre. From morning till night the extraction machines were roaring, waggons set out amid the loud cracking of whips, women sang, and children played and cried[Pg 231] where formerly there had been a desert and death-like silence, which only the eagles had broken with the sound of their slowly beating pinions. And myrtle and broom still perfumed the atmosphere, which was so delightfully pure.

On the subject of the first railway which he had to lay, the line from Broussa to Beyrout by way of Angora and Aleppo, Hamelin wrote at great length. All the formalities had been concluded at Constantinople. He was delighted with certain happy alterations which he had made in the line of route, so as to overcome the difficult passage through the Taurus passes; and of these passes and of the plains that stretched away at the foot of the mountains he wrote with the rapture of a man of science who had found new coal deposits there, and expected to see the country covered with factories. He had located his guiding points, and chosen the sites of his stations, some in the midst of the wild solitudes—one here, another farther on. Cities would spring up around those stations at the intersection of the natural highways. The seed was already sown for the crop of men and grand things of the future; everything was already germinating; within a few years there would here be a new world. And he concluded with a loving kiss for his dear sister, happy at being able to associate her in this resurrection of a people, telling her that much of it would be due to her, to her who had so long helped him, buoyed him up by her fine bravery and health.

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Madame Caroline had finished her perusal, the letter lay open on the table, and she remained there thinking, her eyes once more fixed upon the lamp. Then her glances involuntarily rose and strayed round the walls, lingering for a moment on each of the plans, each of the water-colour drawings she saw there. The pavilion for the manager of the United Steam Navigation Company was now built at Beyrout, and was surrounded by vast store-houses. That deep, wild gorge of Mount Carmel, blocked up with brambles and stones, was now being peopled; the huge nest, as it were, of some new-born race. Those levellings in the Taurus range were changing the aspect of the horizon, opening the way for[Pg 232] free commerce. And from all those geometrically outlined designs, secured to the walls by a few tacks, there sprang up before her a complete vision of the far-off country where she had formerly travelled, and which she had loved so dearly for its beautiful sky of unchanging blue and its ever fertile soil.

Again she beheld the gardens of Beyrout rising up in tiers, the valleys of Mount Lebanon with their great forests of olive and mulberry trees, the plains of Antioch and Aleppo with their immense orchards of delightful fruits. Again she beheld herself with her brother continually journeying through that marvellous country, whose incalculable wealth was lost, ignored, or misapplied, which had had no roads, no industry, no agriculture, no schools, but had been solely the abode of idleness and ignorance. Now, however, all was springing to life again, thanks to an extraordinary flow of fresh sap. This vision of the East of to-morrow already set prosperous cities, cultivated fields, happy people before her eyes. And she saw them, and heard the busy hum of the workshops; and realised that this old soil, so long asleep, was reawakened at last, and was entering upon the work of parturition.

Then Madame Caroline acquired the sudden conviction that money was the dung-heap in which grew the humanity of to-morrow. Some of Saccard's remarks, scraps of his theories respecting speculation, came back to her mind. She recalled that idea of his that without speculation there would be no great fruitful enterprises, just in the same way as without love, though love may have its horrid aspects, there would be no life. If life is to continue in the world, there must be passion. If her brother over yonder in the East was in such high spirits, shouting victory amidst the workshops and yards which were being got in order, and the buildings which were springing from the soil, it was because the passion for gambling was making money rain down and rot everything in Paris. Poisonous and destructive money became the ferment of all social vegetation, served as the necessary compost for the execution of the great works which would draw the nations nearer together and pacify the earth.

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She had cursed money, and now she fell in awe-stricken admiration before it; for was not money the sole force that can level a mountain, fill up an arm of the sea—briefly, render the earth inhabitable by men, who, once relieved of labour, would become but the conductors of machines. From this force, which was the root of all evil, there also sprang everything that was good. And, shaken to the depths of her being, she no longer knew what to do, for although she had already decided that she would not go away, since success seemed complete in the East and it was at Paris that the battle raged, she was yet unable to calm herself, to heal her bleeding heart.

She rose, and with her forehead pressed against a pane of one of the windows commanding the garden of the Beauvilliers mansion, she looked out. It was now night; and she could only distinguish a faint gleam in the lonely little room in which the Countess and her daughter confined themselves, so that they might economise firing and avoid soiling the other apartments. Behind the thin muslin curtains she could vaguely distinguish the figure of the Countess, who was mending some linen, whilst Alice was busy with some water-colour sketches, which she painted hurriedly by the dozen and secretly sold. A misfortune had lately happened to them; their horse had contracted some illness, and for a fortnight they had been confined to the house, obstinately refusing to show themselves on foot in the streets, and reluctant to hire another horse from a livery stable. Nevertheless, amidst the poverty which they so heroically concealed, they were now buoyed up, inspirited by one hope—a hope that the rise in the value of Universal shares would continue, that their gain, already very considerable, would fall upon them in a golden rain when the day came for them to realise their shares at the highest possible figure. The Countess promised herself a really new dress, and dreamt of being able to give four dinners a month without having to live on bread and water for a fortnight in order to do so. Alice, too, no longer laughed with an affected air of indifference when her mother spoke to her of marriage, but listened with a slight trembling of the hands, beginning to believe that this dream would[Pg 234] perhaps be realised, and that, like others, she might have a husband and children of her own.

As Madame Caroline stood looking at the little lamp which lighted them, she felt great calmness, a soft affectionate feeling, penetrating her, struck as she was by the circumstance that money, merely the hope of money, sufficed for the happiness of those poor creatures. If Saccard should enrich them, would they not bless him—would he not remain charitable and good in the estimation of both of them? So goodness was to be found everywhere, even in the worst, who are always good to someone, and who always, amidst the curses of a crowd, have humble, isolated voices thanking and adoring them. At this thought her mind turned towards the Institute of Work. On the day before she had, on Saccard's behalf, distributed some toys and sweetmeats there, in celebration of an anniversary; and she smiled involuntarily at the recollection of the children's noisy joy. For the last month Victor had given greater satisfaction; she had read some notes about him when calling on the Princess d'Orviedo, with whom, twice a week, she had a long chat respecting the institution. But as the image of Victor suddenly appeared to her, she felt astonished at having forgotten him in her crisis of despair, when she had made up her mind to flee from Paris. Could she have thus abandoned him—compromised the success of the good action which she had carried so far with so much trouble? A more and more penetrating feeling of gentle affection came upon her as she gazed into the obscurity of the tall trees, a flood of ineffable renunciation, of divine tolerance, which enlarged her heart; and it seemed to her that the common little lamp of the Beauvilliers ladies was now shining forth like a star.

When Madame Caroline came back to her table she was shivering a little. What! was she cold then? The idea amused her, she who boasted of passing the winter without fires. She felt, however, as though she had come from an icy bath, rejuvenated and strong, with her pulse very calm. It was thus with her on the mornings when she rose feeling particularly well. Then it occurred to her to put a log in the[Pg 235] fire-place; and, seeing that the fire was out, she amused herself in lighting it again, without ringing for a servant. It was quite a job, for she had no small wood, but she at last managed to ignite the logs by means of some old newspapers, which she burned one after another. On her knees before the hearth she laughed all alone; and for a moment she remained there, feeling happy and surprised. She had again passed through one of her great crises, and now she again hoped. For what? She knew nothing of the eternal unknown that lay at the end of life, at the end of humanity. To live, that must suffice, in order that life might continually bring her the cure for the wounds which life inflicted. Once more did she remember the catastrophes of her existence—her frightful marriage, her poverty in Paris, her abandonment by the only man whom she had loved; and after every fall she had recovered that tenacious energy, that immortal joy which ever placed her on her feet again amid the ruins. Had not everything just collapsed again? She could no longer esteem Saccard, confronted as she had been by his frightful past, even as holy women are confronted by the unclean wounds which they go, morning and evening, to dress, not hoping ever to heal them. But, albeit she knew the truth, she was going to continue her wonted life. She was going to live in a fire, in the panting forge of speculation, under the incessant threat of a final catastrophe, in which her brother might lose his honour and his life. Nevertheless, there she stood, almost reckless, as on the morning of a fine day, tasting the joy of battle in confronting danger. Why? for nothing in reason, but for the sole pleasure of being! Her brother told her truly she was the incarnation of invincible hope.

When Saccard returned he found Madame Caroline buried in her work, finishing in her firm handwriting a page of the memoir on the Oriental railways. She raised her head and smiled at him peacefully, while his lips lightly touched her beautiful, radiant, white hair.

'You have been very busy, my friend?'

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'Oh, endless business! I saw the Minister of Public[Pg 236] Works; I went to meet Huret, then I had to return to the Ministry, where I only found a secretary, but at last I have the promise they want over yonder.'

Having handed him Hamelin's letter, which delighted him, she watched him as he exulted over the approaching triumph, and said to herself that she would henceforth look after him more closely in order to prevent the follies of which he would otherwise certainly be guilty. However, she could not bring herself to treat him with severity.

'Your son came here to invite you to dinner,' she said, 'on behalf of Madame de Jeumont.'

'Oh, she had already written to me!' he exclaimed. 'I forgot to tell you that I am going there this evening. It bores me terribly, tired as I am.'