The Lemoine Affair, by Gustave Flaubert

   The heat was becoming stifling, a bell rings, turtle-doves take flight, and, the windows having been closed on the orders of the presiding judge, an odour of dust pervades through the room. He was elderly, with a clownish face, a robe too tight for his bulk, and pretensions of wit; and his uniform side-whiskers, stained with tobacco residue, lent to his whole appearance a theatrical and vulgar air. As the suspension of the hearing drew on, new acquaintanceships were being forged; in order to start up conversations, some rakes complained in loud voices about the lack of air, and, when somebody said they recognized a gentleman leaving the room as the Minister of the Interior, a reactionary whispered: "Poor France!" And a negro brought respect upon himself, partly out of a desire for popularity, by taking an orange from his pocket and apologetically offering the segments to his neighbours on a newspaper: firstly to a clergyman who declared he had "never tasted anything so good, an excellent fruit, very refreshing"; but a dowager assumed an offended expression, forbidding her girls from accepting anything "from someone they don't know", whilst other people, not knowing if the newspaper would reach as far as them, tried to adopt a suitable expression: some took out their watches, a lady took off her hat. Which was surmounted with a parrot. Two astonished young people wondered whether it had been placed there as a keepsake or was simply an expression of her eccentric taste. Already practical jokers were beginning to question each other from one bench to the next, and the ladies, looking to their husbands, were stifling their laughter in their handkerchiefs, when silence descended on the room, the judge seemed about to fall asleep, Werner's council pronounced his address. He began in an emphatic tone, spoke for two hours, seemed dyspeptic, and every time he said "Monsieur le Président" lowered his voice with such profound bow that he brought to mind a young girl before the king, a deacon leaving the altar. It was terrible for Lemoine, but the elegance of his formulae mitigated the harshness of the indictment. And his sentences followed each other without interruption, like the waters of waterfall, like a ribbon being unwound. At one point the monotony of his address was such that it could barely be distinguished from silence, as the vibration of a bell persists, like a dying echo. To conclude, he called to witness the portraits of presidents Grévy and Carnot which hung above the tribunal; and each of them, with head raised, undeniably proved that they had earned their mouldiness in this official and dirty room that exhibits our glories and smelled of decay. A large bay divided the benches that were lined up as far as the foot of the tribunal down the centre; the court room was covered in dust, with spiders in the corners of the ceiling, a rat in every hole, and it needed to be frequently ventilated because of the proximity of the hot-air stove, sometimes because of a more nauseating odour. Lemoine's advocate was brief in his reply. But he had a Meridional accent, appealed to the generous passions, constantly removing his pince-nez. As she listened to him Nathalie felt that uneasiness that is caused by true eloquence, a delicious emotion assailed her and, her heart swelling with expectation, the cambric of her bodice was palpitating, like the grass on the bank of a spring that is about to gush forth, like the plumage of a pigeon that is about to take flight. Eventually the judge made a sign, a murmur spread through the room, two umbrellas fell to the floor: we were going to hear from the accused once again. Immediately he was called forth with angry gestures from the witnesses; why had he not, in all honesty, manufactured diamonds, divulged his invention? Everyone, even down to the most wretched person, would have known - and this was certain - how to make millions from them. They even saw them with their own eyes, with that excessive regret we feel when we believe we possess that which we lament. And many yielded themselves up once more to the sweetness of the dreams they had conceived, in which they had caught a glimpse of a fortune, upon the news of the discovery, before having tracked down the swindler.
   For some it was the abandonment of their jobs, a house on the avenue du Bois, influence in the Academy; even a yacht that would have taken them to cooler climes for the summer, not to the Pole perhaps, which may be interesting, but the food there tastes of oil, the twenty four hours of daylight must be inconvenient for sleeping, and then how do you keep out of the way of the polar bears?
   For others, millions would not be enough; straight away they would gamble it on the stock market; and buying their shares at the lowest price the very day before they rose in value - a friend would have provided them with this information - would see their capital increase a hundredfold in a few hours. Then, rich as Carnegie, they take care not to give it away to some humanitarian Utopia. (Besides what good does it do? It has been calculated that a thousand million shared out to every Frenchman would not make a single one any the richer.) But, leaving luxury to the vainglorious, they will endeavour to obtain merely comfort and influence, getting themselves nominated President of the Republic, ambassador to Constantinople, having their bedroom walls lined with cork to deaden the noise from their neighbours. They would not join the Jockey Club, passing their own judgement on the value of the aristocracy. A papal title has more attraction for them. Perhaps you can get one without having to pay. But in that case what use so many millions? In short they add to St Peter's pence while blaming the institution. What can the pope do with five million lace ruffles when so many rural priests are dying of hunger?
   But some, dreaming of the riches that could have come their way felt they were about to faint; because they would have been able to throw themselves at the feet of the woman who until then had scorned them, who would have finally given up to them the secret of her kiss and the softness of her body. They could picture themselves with her, living in the country, till the end of their days, in a house made of white wood, by the melancholy banks of a great river. They would have known the cry of the petrel, the arrival of the mists, the rocking of the ships, the formations of the clouds, and would have remained for hours with her body cradled on their knees, watching the rising tide and the mooring ropes knocking together, from the terrace, in a cane armchair, under a blue-striped awning, between metal balls. And they would end up seeing nothing else but two branches of violet flowers, hanging down over the fast-moving water that they almost touch, in the flood of light of a sunless afternoon, along the length of a reddish wall that is crumbling away. For them, the excess of their own distress lessens the strength of their damnation of the accused; but they all hate him, feeling that they have been frustrated in their debauchery, fame, honour and talent; perhaps too in those deep and comforting feelings that they have kept hidden, since childhood, in the particular folly of their own dream.


Article appeared in Le Figaro, 14 March 1908 and reprinted in Pastiches et Mélanges (Libraire Gallimard, 1919).

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