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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote And especially Sylvie


[Sidenote:

And especially _Sylvie_.]

For _Sylvie_, with its sub-title, "Souvenirs du Valois," surely exhibits Gerard, outside the pure travel-books, at his very best, as far as concerns that mixture of _reve_ and _realite_--the far-off goal of Gautier's[244] _Chimere_--which has been spoken of. The author comes out of a theatre where he has only seen Her, having never, though a constant worshipper, troubled himself to ask, much less to seek out, what She might be off the stage. And here we may give an actual piece of him.

We were living then in a strange kind of time,[245] one of those which are wont to come after revolutions, or the decadences of great reigns. There was no longer any gallantry of the heroic kind, as in the time of the Fronde; no vice, elegant and in full dress, as in that of the Regency; no "Directory" scepticism and foolish orgies. It was a mixture of activity, hesitation, and idleness--of brilliant utopias; of religious or philosophical aspiration; of vague enthusiasms mingled with certain instincts of a sort of Renaissance. Men were weary of past discords; of uncertain hopes, much as in the time of Petronius or Peregrinus. The materialist part of us hungered for the bouquet of roses which in the hands of Isis was to regenerate it--the Goddess, eternally young and pure, appeared to us at night and made us ashamed of the hours

we had lost in the day. We were not at the age of ambition, and the greedy hunt for place and honours kept us out of possible spheres of work. Only the poet's Ivory Tower remained for us, and we climbed it ever higher and higher to be clear of the mob. At the heights whither our masters guided us we breathed at last the pure air of solitude; we drank in the golden cup of legend; we were intoxicated with poetry and with love. But, alas! it was only love of vague forms; of tints roseal and azure; of metaphysical phantoms. The real woman, seen close, revolted our ingenuousness: we would have had her a queen or a goddess, and to draw near her was fatal.

But he went from the play to his club, and there somebody asked him for what person (in such cases one regrets _laquelle_) he went so constantly to the same house; and, on the actress being named, kindly pointed out to him a third member of this club as the lady's lover-in-title. The peculiar etiquette of the institution demanded, it seems, that the fortunate gallant should escort the beloved home, but then go to the _cercle_ and play (they were wise enough to play whist then) for great part of the night before exercising the remainder of his rights and privileges. In the interval, apparently, other cats might be grey. And, as it happened, Gerard saw in a paper that some shares of his, long rubbish, had become of value. He would be better off; he might aspire to a portion of the lady's spare hours. But this notion, it is not surprising to hear, did not appeal to our Gerard. He sees in the same paper that a _fete_ is going to take place in his old country of the Valois; and when at last he goes home two "faces in the fire" rise for him, those of the little peasant girl Sylvie and of the chatelaine Adrienne--beautiful, triumphant, but destined to be a nun. Unable to sleep, he gets up at one in the morning, and manages to find himself at Loisy, the scene of the _fete_, in time.


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