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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And the irresistible Iza seduces Constantin himself


This

may be said to be the third warning-bell; but though it shocks even the "ensorceressed" Pierre for the moment, his infatuation continues. At last he begins to have an idea that people look askance at him; trains of suspicion are laid; after one or two clever evasions of Iza's, the usual "epistolary communication" forces the matter, and Constantin Ritz at last tells the unhappy husband that not merely has "Serge" reappeared, but there are nearly half-a-dozen "others," and that doubts have even been suggested as to connivance on Pierre's part--doubts strengthened by Iza's treacherous complaints as to her husband having employed her as a model. A violent scene follows, Iza brazening it out, and calmly demanding separation. Clemenceau goes to Rome after forcing a duel on Serge and wounding him; but the blow has weakened, if not destroyed, his powers in art. Fresh scandals follow, and the irresistible Iza seduces Constantin himself, characteristically communicating the fact in an anonymous letter to her miserable husband. He returns (for the second time), takes no vengeance on his friend, but sees his wife. The interview provides an audaciously devised but finely executed curtain. She calmly proposes--how shall we say it?--to "put herself in commission." She loves nobody but him, she says, and knows he has loved, loves, and will love nobody but her. He ought, originally, to have taken her offer of being his mistress, and then no harm would have happened. She would really like to go
back with him to Saint-Assise (the honeymoon place). Suppose they do? As for _living_ with him and being "faithful" to him--that is impossible. But she will come to him, at his whistle, whenever he likes, and be absolutely his for a day and a night and a morrow. In fact he may begin at once if he likes: and she puts her arms round his neck and her mouth to his. He takes her at her word; but when the night is half passed and she is asleep, he gently rises, goes into the next room, fetches a stiletto paper-knife with which he has seen her playing, half wakes her, asks her if she loves him, to which, still barely conscious, she answers "Yes!" with a half-formed kiss on her lips. Then he stabs her dead with a single blow, leaving the house quietly, and giving himself up to the police at dawn.

[Sidenote: Criticism of it and of its author's work generally.]

If anybody asks me, "Is this well done?" expecting me to enter on the discussion of the _lex non scripta_, I shall reply that this is not my trade. But if the question refers to the merits of the handling, I can reply as confidently as the dying Charmian, "It is well done, and fitting for a novelist." In no book, as it seems to me, has the author obtained such a complete command of his subject or reeled out his story with such steady confidence and fluency. No doubt he sometimes preaches too much.[383] The elder Ritz's advice against suicide, for instance, if sound is superfluous. But this is not a very serious evil, and the steady _crescendo_ of interest which prevails throughout the story carries it off. There are also numerous separate passages of real distinction, the fateful bathing-scene being, as it should be, the best, except the finale; but others, such as the history of Pierre's first modelling from the life, being excellent. The satire on the literary coteries of the Restoration is about the best thing of the kind that the author has done; and many of the "interiors"--always a strong point with him--are admirable. It is on the point of character that the chief questions may arise; but here also there seems to me to be only one of these--it is true it is the most important of all--on which there should be much debate. The succumbing of Constantin seems perhaps a little more justifiable by its importance to the story than by its intrinsic probability.[384] Clemenceau seems to me "constant to himself," or in the "good childlikeness" of his character, throughout; and to ask whether it was necessary to make him smash the bust that he finds in Serge's possession seems to be equivalent to asking whether it was necessary to put the Vice-Consul of Tetuan in petticoats.[385] It is only about Iza herself that there can be much dispute. Has that process synthetic which is spoken of elsewhere been carried too far with her? Have doses of childlikeness, beauty, charm, ill-nature, sensual appetite, etc., been taken too "boldly" (in technical doctors' sense) and mixed too crudely to measure? A word or two may be permissible on this.


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