STRONG AS DEATH
STRONG AS DEATH
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
A DUEL OF HEARTS
Broad daylight streamed down into the vast studio through a skylight
in the ceiling which showed a large square of dazzling blue a bright
vista of limitless heights of azure across which passed flocks of
birds in rapid flight. But the glad light of heaven hardly entered
this severe room with high ceilings and draped walls before it began
to grow soft and dim to slumber among the hangings and die in the
portieres hardly penetrating to the dark corners where the gilded
frames of portraits gleamed like flame. Peace and sleep seemed
imprisoned there the peace characteristic of an artist's dwelling
where the human soul has toiled. Within these walls where thought
abides struggles and becomes exhausted in its violent efforts
everything appears weary and overcome as soon as the energy of action
is abated; all seems dead after the great crises of life and the
furniture the hangings and the portraits of great personages still
unfinished on the canvases all seem to rest as if the whole place had
suffered the master's fatigue and had toiled with him taking part in
the daily renewal of his struggle. A vague heavy odor of paint
turpentine and tobacco was in the air clinging to the rugs and
chairs; and no sound broke the deep silence save the sharp short cries
of the swallows that flitted above the open skylight and the dull
ceaseless roar of Paris hardly heard above the roofs. Nothing moved
except a little cloud of smoke that rose intermittently toward the
ceiling with every puff that Olivier Bertin lying upon his divan
blew slowly from a cigarette between his lips.
With gaze lost in the distant sky he tried to think of a new subject
for a painting. What should he do? As yet he did not know. He was by
no means resolute and sure of himself as an artist but was of an
uncertain uneasy spirit whose undecided inspiration ever hesitated
among all the manifestations of art. Rich illustrious the gainer of
all honors he nevertheless remained in these his later years a man
who did not know exactly toward what ideal he had been aiming. He had
won the /Prix/ of Rome had been the defender of traditions and had
evoked like so many others the great scenes of history; then
modernizing his tendencies he had painted living men but in a way
that showed the influence of classic memories. Intelligent
enthusiastic a worker that clung to his changing dreams in love with
his art which he knew to perfection he had acquired by reason of
the delicacy of his mind remarkable executive ability and great
versatility due in some degree to his hesitations and his experiments
in all styles of his art. Perhaps too the sudden admiration of the
world for his works elegant correct and full of distinctions
influenced his nature and prevented him from becoming what he
naturally might have been. Since the triumph of his first success the
desire to please always made him anxious without his being conscious
of it; it influenced his actions and weakened his convictions. This
desire to please was apparent in him in many ways and had contributed
much to his glory.
His grace of manner all his habits of life the care he devoted to
his person his long-standing reputation for strength and agility as a
swordsman and an equestrian had added further attractions to his
steadily growing fame. After his /Cleopatra/ the first picture that
had made him illustrious Paris suddenly became enamored of him
adopted him made a pet of him; and all at once he became one of those
brilliant fashionable artists one meets in the Bois for whose
presence hostesses maneuver and whom the Institute welcomes
thenceforth. He had entered it as a conqueror with the approval of
Thus Fortune had led him to the beginning of old age coddling and
Under the influence of the beautiful day which he knew was glowing
without Bertin sought a poetic subject. He felt somewhat dreamy
however after his breakfast and his cigarette; he pondered awhile
gazing into space in fancy sketching rapidly against the blue sky the
figures of graceful women in the Bois or on the sidewalk of a street
lovers by the water--all the pleasing fancies in which his thoughts
reveled. The changing images stood out against the bright sky vague
and fleeting in the hallucination of his eye while the swallows
darting through space in ceaseless flight seemed trying to efface
them as if with strokes of a pen.
He found nothing. All these half-seen visions resembled things that he
had already done; all the women appeared to be the daughters or the
sisters of those that had already been born of his artistic fancy; and
the vague fear that had haunted him for a year that he had lost the
power to create had made the round of all subjects and exhausted his
inspiration outlined itself distinctly before this review of his work
--this lack of power to dream anew to discover the unknown.
He arose quietly to look among his unfinished sketches hoping to find
something that would inspire him with a new idea.
Still puffing at his cigarette he proceeded to turn over the
sketches drawings and rough drafts that he kept in a large old
closet; but soon becoming disgusted with this vain quest and feeling
depressed by the lassitude of his spirits he tossed away his
cigarette whistled a popular street-song bent down and picked up a
heavy dumb-bell that lay under a chair. Having raised with the other
hand a curtain that draped a mirror which served him in judging the
accuracy of a pose in verifying his perspectives and testing the
truth he placed himself in front of it and began to swing the dumb-
bell meanwhile looking intently at himself.
He had been celebrated in the studios for his strength; then in the
gay world for his good looks. But now the weight of years was making
him heavy. Tall with broad shoulders and full chest he had acquired
the protruding stomach of an old wrestler although he kept up his
fencing every day and rode his horse with assiduity. His head was
still remarkable and as handsome as ever although in a style
different from that of his earlier days. His thick and short white
hair set off the black eyes beneath heavy gray eyebrows while his
luxuriant moustache--the moustache of an old soldier--had remained
quite dark and it gave to his countenance a rare characteristic of
energy and pride.
Standing before the mirror with heels together and body erect he
went through the usual movements with the two iron balls which he
held out at the end of his muscular arm watching with a complacent
expression its evidence of quiet power.
But suddenly in the glass which reflected the whole studio he saw
one of the portieres move; then appeared a woman's head--only a head
peeping in. A voice behind him asked:
"Present!" he responded promptly turning around. Then throwing his
dumb-bell on the floor he hastened toward the door with an appearance
of youthful agility that was slightly affected.
A woman entered attired in a light summer costume. They shook hands.
"You were exercising I see" said the lady.
"Yes" he replied; "I was playing peacock and allowed myself to be
The lady laughed and continued:
"Your concierge's lodge was vacant and as I know you are always alone
at this hour I came up without being announced."
He looked at her.
"Heavens how beautiful you are! What chic!"
"Yes I have a new frock. Do you think it pretty?"
"Charming and perfectly harmonious. We can certainly say that
nowadays it is possible to give expression to the lightest textiles."
He walked around her gently touching the material of the gown
adjusting its folds with the tips of his fingers like a man that
knows a woman's toilet as the modiste knows it having all his life
employed his artist's taste and his athlete's muscles in depicting
with slender brush changing and delicate fashions in revealing
feminine grace enclosed within a prison of velvet and silk or hidden
by snowy laces. He finished his scrutiny by declaring: "It is a great
success and it becomes you perfectly!"
The lady allowed herself to be admired quite content to be pretty and
to please him.
No longer in her first youth but still beautiful not very tall
somewhat plump but with that freshness which lends to a woman of
forty an appearance of having only just reached full maturity she
seemed like one of those roses that flourish for an indefinite time up
to the moment when in too full a bloom they fall in an hour.
Beneath her blonde hair she possessed the shrewdness to preserve all
the alert and youthful grace of those Parisian women who never grow
old; who carry within themselves a surprising vital force an
indomitable power of resistance and who remain for twenty years
triumphant and indestructible careful above all things of their
bodies and ever watchful of their health.
She raised her veil and murmured:
"Well you do not kiss me!"
"I have been smoking."
"Pooh!" said the lady. Then holding up her face she added "So much
Their lips met.
He took her parasol and divested her of her spring jacket with the
prompt swift movement indicating familiarity with this service. As
she seated herself on the divan he asked with an air of interest:
"Is all going well with your husband?"
"Very well; he must be making a speech in the House at this very
"Ah! On what pray?"
"Oh--no doubt on beets or on rape-seed oil as usual!"
Her husband the Comte de Guilleroy deputy from the Eure made a
special study of all questions of agricultural interest.
Perceiving in one corner a sketch that she did not recognize the lady
walked across the studio asking "What is that?"
"A pastel that I have just begun--the portrait of the Princesse de
"You know" said the lady gravely "that if you go back to painting
portraits of women I shall close your studio. I know only too well to
what that sort of thing leads!"
"Oh but I do not make twice a portrait of Any!" was the answer.
"I hope not indeed!"
She examined the newly begun pastel sketch with the air of a woman
that understands the technic of art. She stepped back advanced made
a shade of her hand sought the place where the best light fell on the
sketch and finally expressed her satisfaction.
"It is very good. You succeed admirably with pastel work."
"Do you think so?" murmured the flattered artist.
"Yes; it is a most delicate art needing great distinction of style.
It cannot be handled by masons in the art of painting."
For twelve years the Countess had encouraged the painter's leaning
toward the distinguished in art opposing his occasional return to the
simplicity of realism; and in consideration of the demands of
fashionable modern elegance she had tenderly urged him toward an
ideal of grace that was slightly affected and artificial.
"What is the Princess like?" she asked.
He was compelled to give her all sorts of details--those minute
details in which the jealous and subtle curiosity of women delights
passing from remarks upon her toilet to criticisms of her
Suddenly she inquired: "Does she flirt with you?"
He laughed and declared that she did not.
Then putting both hands on the shoulders of the painter the Countess
gazed fixedly at him. The ardor of her questioning look caused a
quiver in the pupils of her blue eyes flecked with almost
imperceptible black points like tiny ink-spots.
Again she murmured: "Truly now she is not a flirt?"
"No indeed I assure you!"
"Well I am quite reassured on another account" said the Countess.
"You never will love anyone but me now. It is all over for the others.
It is too late my poor dear!"
The painter experienced that slight painful emotion which touches the
heart of middle-aged men when some one mentions their age; and he
murmured: "To-day and to-morrow as yesterday there never has been in
my life and never will be anyone but you Any."
She took him by the arm and turning again toward the divan made him
sit beside her.
"Of what were you thinking?" she asked.
"I am looking for a subject to paint."
"I don't know you see since I am still seeking it."
"What have you been doing lately?"
He was obliged to tell her of all the visits he had received about
all the dinners and soirees he had attended and to repeat all the
conversations and chit-chat. Both were really interested in all these
futile and familiar details of fashionable life. The little rivalries
the flirtations either well known or suspected the judgments a
thousand times heard and repeated upon the same persons the same
events and opinions were bearing away and drowning both their minds
in that troubled and agitated stream called Parisian life. Knowing
everyone in all classes of society he as an artist to whom all doors
were open she as the elegant wife of a Conservative deputy they were
experts in that sport of brilliant French chatter amiably satirical
banal brilliant but futile with a certain shibboleth which gives a
particular and greatly envied reputation to those whose tongues have
become supple in this sort of malicious small talk.
"When are you coming to dine?" she asked suddenly.
"Whenever you wish. Name your day."
"Friday. I shall have the Duchesse de Mortemain the Corbelles and
Musadieu in honor of my daughter's return--she is coming this
evening. But do not speak of it my friend. It is a secret."
"Oh yes I accept. I shall be charmed to see Annette again. I have
not seen her in three years."
"Yes that is true. Three years!"
Though Annette in her earliest years had been brought up in Paris in
her parents' home she had become the object of the last and
passionate affection of her grandmother Madame Paradin who almost
blind lived all the year round on her son-in-law's estate at the
castle of Roncieres on the Eure. Little by little the old lady had
kept the child with her more and more and as the De Guilleroys passed
almost half their time in this domain to which a variety of
interests agricultural and political called them frequently it
ended in taking the little girl to Paris on occasional visits for she
herself preferred the free and active life of the country to the
cloistered life of the city.
For three years she had not visited Paris even once the Countess
having preferred to keep her entirely away from it in order that a
new taste for its gaieties should not be awakened in her before the
day fixed for her debut in society. Madame de Guilleroy had given her
in the country two governesses with unexceptionable diplomas and had
visited her mother and her daughter more frequently than before.
Moreover Annette's sojourn at the castle was rendered almost
necessary by the presence of the old lady.
Formerly Olivier Bertin had passed six weeks or two months at
Roncieres every year; but in the past three years rheumatism had sent
him to watering-places at some distance which had so much revived his
love for Paris that after his return he could not bring himself to
As a matter of custom the young girl should not have returned home
until autumn but her father had suddenly conceived a plan for her
marriage and sent for her that she might meet immediately the Marquis
de Farandal to whom he wished her to be betrothed. But this plan was
kept quite secret and Madame de Guilleroy had told only Olivier
Bertin of it in strict confidence.
"Then your husband's idea is quite decided upon?" said he at last.
"Yes; I even think it a very happy idea."
Then they talked of other things.
She returned to the subject of painting and wished to make him decide
to paint a Christ. He opposed the suggestion thinking that there was
already enough of them in the world; but she persisted and grew
impatient in her argument.
"Oh if I knew how to draw I would show you my thought: it should be
very new very bold. They are taking him down from the cross and the
man who has detached the hands has let drop the whole upper part of
the body. It has fallen upon the crowd below and they lift up their
arms to receive and sustain it. Do you understand?"
Yes he understood; he even thought the conception quite original; but
he held himself as belonging to the modern style and as his fair
friend reclined upon the divan with one daintily-shod foot peeping
out giving to the eye the sensation of flesh gleaming through the
almost transparent stocking he said: "Ah that is what I should
paint! That is life--a woman's foot at the edge of her skirt! Into
that subject one may put everything--truth desire poetry. Nothing is
more graceful or more charming than a woman's foot; and what mystery
it suggests: the hidden limb lost yet imagined beneath its veiling
folds of drapery!"
Sitting on the floor /a la Turque/ he seized her shoe and drew it
off and the foot coming out of its leather sheath moved about
quickly like a little animal surprised at being set free.
"Isn't that elegant distinguished and material--more material than
the hand? Show me your hand Any!"
She wore long gloves reaching to the elbow. In order to remove one she
took it by the upper edge and slipped it down quickly turning it
inside out as one would skin a snake. The arm appeared white plump
round so suddenly bared as to produce an idea of complete and bold
She gave him her hand which drooped from her wrist. The rings
sparkled on her white fingers and the narrow pink nails seemed like
amorous claws protruding at the tips of that little feminine paw.
Olivier Bertin handled it tenderly and admiringly. He played with the
fingers as if they were live toys while saying:
"What a strange thing! What a strange thing! What a pretty little
member intelligent and adroit which executes whatever one wills--
books laces houses pyramids locomotives pastry or caresses
which last is its pleasantest function."
He drew off the rings one by one and as the wedding-ring fell in its
turn he murmured smilingly:
"The law! Let us salute it!"
"Nonsense!" said the Countess slightly wounded.
Bertin had always been inclined to satirical banter that tendency of
the French to mingle irony with the most serious sentiments and he
had often unintentionally made her sad without knowing how to
understand the subtle distinctions of women or to discern the border
of sacred ground as he himself said. Above all things it vexed her
whenever he alluded with a touch of familiar lightness to their
attachment which was an affair of such long standing that he declared
it the most beautiful example of love in the nineteenth century. After
a silence she inquired:
"Will you take Annette and me to the varnishing-day reception?"
Then she asked him about the best pictures to be shown in the next
exposition which was to open in a fortnight.
Suddenly however she appeared to recollect something she had
"Come give me my shoe" she said. "I am going now."
He was playing dreamily with the light shoe turning it over
abstractedly in his hands. He leaned over kissed the foot which
appeared to float between the skirt and the rug and which a little
chilled by the air no longer moved restlessly about; then he slipped
on the shoe and Madame de Guilleroy rising approached the table on
which were scattered papers open letters old and recent beside a