Among these smirking and carefully composed faces, Des Hermies, evidently a man of forceful individuality, seemed, and probably felt, singularly out of place. He was tall, slender, somewhat pale. His eyes, narrowed in a frown, had the cold blue gleam of sapphires. The nose was short and sharp, the cheeks smooth shaven. With his flaxen hair and Vandyke he might have been a Norwegian or an Englishman in not very good health. His garments were of London make, and the long, tight, wasp-waisted coat, buttoned clear up to the neck, seemed to enclose him like a box. Very careful of his person, he had a manner all his own of drawing off his gloves, rolling them up with an almost inaudible crackling, then seating himself, crossing his long, thin legs, and leaning over to the right, reaching into the patch pocket on his left side and bringing forth the embossed Japanese pouch which contained his tobacco and cigarette papers.
He was methodic, guarded, and very cold in the presence of strangers. His superior and somewhat bored attitude, not exactly relieved by his curt, dry laugh, awakened, at a first meeting, a serious antipathy which he sometimes justified by venomous words, by meaningless silences, by unspoken innuendoes. He was respected and feared at Chantelouve’s, but when one came to know him one found, beneath his defensive shell, great warmth of heart and a capacity for true friendship of the kind that is not expansive but is capable of sacrifice and can always be relied upon.
How did he live? Was he rich or just comfortable? No one knew, and he, tight lipped, never spoke of his affairs. He was doctor of the Faculty of Paris—Durtal had chanced to see his diploma—but he spoke of medicine with great disdain. He said he had become convinced of the futility of all he had been taught, and had thrown it over for homeopathy, which in turn he had thrown over for a Bolognese system, and this last he was now excoriating.
There were times when Durtal could not doubt that his friend was an author, for Des Hermies spoke understandingly of tricks of the trade which one learns only after long experience, and his literary judgment was not that of a layman. When, one day, Durtal reproached him for concealing his productions, he replied with a certain melancholy, “No, I caught myself in time to choke down a base instinct, the desire of resaying what has been said. I could have plagiarized Flaubert as well as, if not better than, the poll parrots who are doing it, but I decided not to. I would rather phrase abstruse medicaments of rare application; perhaps it is not very necessary, but at least it isn’t cheap.”
What surprised Durtal was his friend’s prodigious erudition. Des Hermies had the run of the most out-of-the-way book shops, he was an authority on antique customs and, at the same time, on the latest scientific discoveries. He hobnobbed with all the freaks in Paris, and from them he became deeply learned in the most diverse and hostile sciences. He, so cold and correct, was almost never to be found save in the company of astrologers, cabbalists, demonologists, alchemists, theologians, or inventors.