A Daughter of Eve (Balzac)/Chapter IX
During the preceding night Madame du Tillet had gone over in her mind her sister's revelations. Sure, now, of Nathan's safety, she was no longer influenced by the thought of an imminent danger in that direction. But she remembered the vehement energy with which the countess had declared that she would fly with Nathan if that would save him. She saw that the man might determine her sister in some paroxysm of gratitude and love to take a step which was nothing short of madness. There were recent examples in the highest society of just such flights which paid for doubtful pleasures by lasting remorse and the disrepute of a false position. Du Tillet's speech brought her fears to a point; she dreaded lest all should be discovered; she knew her sister's signature was in Nucingen's hands, and she resolved to entreat Marie to save herself by confessing all to Felix.
She drove to her sister's house, but Marie was not at home. Felix was there. A voice within her cried aloud to Eugenie to save her sister; the morrow might be too late. She took a vast responsibility upon herself, but she resolved to tell all to the count. Surely he would be indulgent when he knew that his honor was still safe. The countess was deluded rather than sinful. Eugenie feared to be treacherous and base in revealing secrets that society (agreeing on this point) holds to be inviolable; but—she saw her sister's future, she trembled lest she should some day be deserted, ruined by Nathan, poor, suffering, disgraced, wretched, and she hesitated no longer; she sent in her name and asked to see the count.
Felix, astonished at the visit, had a long conversation with his sister-in-law, in which he seemed so calm, so completely master of himself, that she feared he might have taken some terrible resolution.
"Do not be uneasy," he said, seeing her anxiety. "I will act in a manner which shall make your sister bless you. However much you may dislike to keep the fact that you have spoken to me from her knowledge, I must entreat you to do so. I need a few days to search into mysteries which you don't perceive; and, above all, I must act cautiously. Perhaps I can learn all in a day. I, alone, my dear sister, am the guilty person. All lovers play their game, and it is not every woman who is able, unassisted, to see life as it is."
Madame du Tillet returned home comforted. Felix de Vandenesse drew forty thousand francs from the Bank of France, and went direct to Madame de Nucingen He found her at home, thanked her for the confidence she had placed in his wife, and returned the money, explaining that the countess had obtained this mysterious loan for her charities, which were so profuse that he was trying to put a limit to them.
"Give me no explanations, monsieur, since Madame de Vandenesse has told you all," said the Baronne de Nucingen.
"She knows the truth," thought Vandenesse.
Madame de Nucingen returned to him Marie's letter of guarantee, and sent to the bank for the four notes. Vandenesse, during the short time that these arrangements kept him waiting, watched the baroness with the eye of a statesman, and he thought the moment propitious for further negotiation.
"We live in an age, madame, when nothing is sure," he said. "Even thrones rise and fall in France with fearful rapidity. Fifteen years have wreaked their will on a great empire, a monarchy, and a revolution. No one can now dare to count upon the future. You know my attachment to the cause of legitimacy. Suppose some catastrophe; would you not be glad to have a friend in the conquering party?"
"Undoubtedly," she said, smiling.
"Very good; then, will you have in me, secretly, an obliged friend who could be of use to Monsieur de Nucingen in such a case, by supporting his claim to the peerage he is seeking?"
"What do you want of me?" she asked.
"Very little," he replied. "All that you know about Nathan's affairs."
The baroness repeated to him her conversation with Rastignac, and said, as she gave him the four notes, which the cashier had meantime brought to her:
"Don't forget your promise."
So little did Vandenesse forget this illusive promise that he used it again on Baron Eugene de Rastignac to obtain from him certain other information. Leaving Rastignac's apartments, he dictated to a street amanuensis the following note to Florine.
"If Mademoiselle Florine wishes to know of a part she may play she
is requested to come to the masked opera at the Opera next Sunday
night, accompanied by Monsieur Nathan."
To this ball he determined to take his wife and let her own eyes enlighten her as to the relations between Nathan and Florine. He knew the jealous pride of the countess; he wanted to make her renounce her love of her own will, without causing her to blush before him, and then to return to her her own letters, sold by Florine, from whom he expected to be able to buy them. This judicious plan, rapidly conceived and partly executed, might fail through some trick of chance which meddles with all things here below.
After dinner that evening, Felix brought the conversation round to the masked balls of the Opera, remarking that Marie had never been to one, and proposing that she should accompany him the following evening.
"I'll find you some one to 'intriguer,'" he said.
"Ah! I wish you would," she replied.
"To do the thing well, a woman ought to fasten upon some good prey, a celebrity, a man of enough wit to give and take. There's Nathan; will you have him? I know, through a friend of Florine, certain secrets of his which would drive him crazy."
"Florine?" said the countess. "Do you mean the actress?"
Marie had already heard that name from the lips of the watchman Quillet; it now shot like a flash of lightning through her soul.
"Yes, his mistress," replied the count. "What is there so surprising in that?"
"I thought Monsieur Nathan too busy to have a mistress. Do authors have time to make love?"
"I don't say they love, my dear, but they are forced to lodge somewhere, like other men, and when they haven't a home of their own they lodge with their mistresses; which may seem to you rather loose, but it is far more agreeable than lodging in a prison."
Fire was less red than Marie's cheeks.
"Will you have him for a victim? I can help you to terrify him," continued the count, not looking at his wife's face. "I'll put you in the way of proving to him that he is being tricked like a child by your brother-in-law du Tillet. That wretch is trying to put Nathan in prison so as to make him ineligible to stand against him in the electoral college. I know, through a friend of Florine, the exact sum derived from the sale of her furniture, which she gave to Nathan to found his newspaper; I know, too, what she sent him out of her summer's harvest in the departments and in Belgium,—money which has really gone to the profit of du Tillet, Nucingen, and Massol. All three of them, unknown to Nathan, have privately sold the paper to the new ministry, so sure are they of ejecting him."
"Monsieur Nathan is incapable of accepting money from an actress."
"You don't know that class of people, my dear," said the count. "He would not deny the fact if you asked him."
"I will certainly go to the ball," said the countess.
"You will be very much amused," replied Vandenesse. "With such weapons in hand you can cut Nathan's complacency to the quick, and you will also do him a great service. You will put him in a fury; he'll try to be calm, though inwardly fuming; but, all the same, you will enlighten a man of talent as to the peril in which he really stands; and you will also have the satisfaction of laming the horses of the 'juste-milieu' in their stalls— But you are not listening to me, my dear."
"On the contrary, I am listening intently," she said. "I will tell you later why I feel desirous to know the truth of all this."
"You shall know it," said Vandenesse. "If you stay masked I will take you to supper with Nathan and Florine; it would be rather amusing for a woman of your rank to fool an actress after bewildering the wits of a clever man about these important facts; you can harness them both to the same hoax. I'll make some inquiries about Nathan's infidelities, and if I discover any of his recent adventures you shall enjoy the sight of a courtesan's fury; it is magnificent. Florine will boil and foam like an Alpine torrent; she adores Nathan; he is everything to her; she clings to him like flesh to the bones or a lioness to her cubs. I remember seeing, in my youth, a celebrated actress (who wrote like a scullion) when she came to a friend of mine to demand her letters. I have never seen such a sight again, such calm fury, such insolent majesty, such savage self-control— Are you ill, Marie?"
"No; they have made too much fire." The countess turned away and threw herself on a sofa. Suddenly, with an unforeseen movement, impelled by the horrible anguish of her jealousy, she rose on her trembling legs, crossed her arms, and came slowly to her husband.
"What do you know?" she asked. "You are not a man to torture me; you would crush me without making me suffer if I were guilty."
"What do you expect me to know, Marie?"
"Well! about Nathan."
"You think you love him," he replied; "but you love a phantom made of words."
"Then you know—"
"All," he said.
The word fell on Marie's head like the blow of a club.
"If you wish it, I will know nothing," he continued. "You are standing on the brink of a precipice, my child, and I must draw you from it. I have already done something. See!"
He drew from his pocket her letter of guarantee and the four notes endorsed by Schmucke, and let the countess recognize them; then he threw them into the fire.
"What would have happened to you, my poor Marie, three months hence?" he said. "The sheriffs would have taken you to a public court-room. Don't bow your head, don't feel humiliated; you have been the dupe of noble feelings; you have coquetted with poesy, not with a man. All women—all, do you hear me, Marie?—would have been seduced in your position. How absurd we should be, we men, we who have committed a thousand follies through a score of years, if we were not willing to grant you one imprudence in a lifetime! God keep me from triumphing over you or from offering you a pity you repelled so vehemently the other day. Perhaps that unfortunate man was sincere when he wrote to you, sincere in attempting to kill himself, sincere in returning that same night to Florine. Men are worth less than women. It is not for my own sake that I speak at this moment, but for yours. I am indulgent, but the world is not; it shuns a woman who makes a scandal. Is that just? I know not; but this I know, the world is cruel. Society refuses to calm the woes itself has caused; it gives its honors to those who best deceive it; it has no recompense for rash devotion. I see and know all that. I can't reform society, but this I can do, I can protect you, Marie, against yourself. This matter concerns a man who has brought you trouble only, and not one of those high and sacred loves which do, at times, command our abnegation, and even bear their own excuse. Perhaps I have been wrong in not varying your happiness, in not providing you with gayer pleasures, travel, amusements, distractions for the mind. Besides, I can explain to myself the impulse that has driven you to a celebrated man, by the jealous envy you have roused in certain women. Lady Dudley, Madame d'Espard, and my sister-in-law Emilie count for something in all this. Those women, against whom I ought to have put you more thoroughly on your guard, have cultivated your curiosity more to trouble me and cause me unhappiness, than to fling you into a whirlpool which, as I believe, you would never have entered."
As she listened to these words, so full of kindness, the countess was torn by many conflicting feelings; but the storm within her breast was ruled by one of them,—a keen admiration for her husband. Proud and noble souls are prompt to recognize the delicacy with which they are treated. Tact is to sentiments what grace is to the body. Marie appreciated the grandeur of the man who bowed before a woman in fault, that he might not see her blush. She ran from the room like one beside herself, but instantly returned, fearing lest her hasty action might cause him uneasiness.
"Wait," she said, and disappeared again.
Felix had ably prepared her excuse, and he was instantly rewarded for his generosity. His wife returned with Nathan's letters in her hand, and gave them to him.
"Judge me," she said, kneeling down beside him.
"Are we able to judge where we love?" he answered, throwing the letters into the fire; for he felt that later his wife might not forgive him for having read them. Marie, with her head upon his knee, burst into tears.
"My child," he said, raising her head, "where are your letters?"
At this question the poor woman no longer felt the intolerable burning of her cheeks; she turned cold.
"That you may not suspect me of calumniating a man whom you think worthy of you, I will make Florine herself return you those letters."
"Oh! Surely he would give them back to me himself."
"Suppose that he refused to do so?"
The countess dropped her head.
"The world disgusts me," she said. "I don't want to enter it again. I want to live alone with you, if you forgive me."
"But you might get bored again. Besides, what would the world say if you left it so abruptly? In the spring we will travel; we will go to Italy, and all over Europe; you shall see life. But to-morrow night we must go to the Opera-ball; there is no other way to get those letters without compromising you; besides, by giving them up, Florine will prove to you her power."
"And must I see that?" said the countess, frightened.
The next evening, about midnight, Nathan was walking about the foyer of the Opera with a mask on his arm, to whom he was attending in a sufficiently conjugal manner. Presently two masked women came up to him.
"You poor fool! Marie is here and is watching you," said one of them, who was Vandenesse, disguised as a woman.
"If you choose to listen to me I will tell you secrets that Nathan is hiding from you," said the other woman, who was the countess, to Florine.
Nathan had abruptly dropped Florine's arm to follow the count, who adroitly slipped into the crowd and was out of sight in a moment. Florine followed the countess, who sat down on a seat close at hand, to which the count, doubling on Nathan, returned almost immediately to guard his wife.
"Explain yourself, my dear," said Florine, "and don't think I shall stand this long. No one can tear Raoul from me, I'll tell you that; I hold him by habit, and that's even stronger than love."
"In the first place, are you Florine?" said the count, speaking in his natural voice.
"A pretty question! if you don't know that, my joking friend, why should I believe you?"
"Go and ask Nathan, who has left you to look for his other mistress, where he passed the night, three days ago. He tried to kill himself without a word to you, my dear,—and all for want of money. That shows how much you know about the affairs of a man whom you say you love, and who leaves you without a penny, and kills himself,—or, rather, doesn't kill himself, for his misses it. Suicides that don't kill are about as absurd as a duel without a scratch."
"That's a lie," said Florine. "He dined with me that very day. The poor fellow had the sheriff after him; he was hiding, as well he might."
"Go and ask at the hotel du Mail, rue du Mail, if he was not taken there that morning, half dead of the fumes of charcoal, by a handsome young woman with whom he has been in love over a year. Her letters are at this moment under your very nose in your own house. If you want to teach Nathan a good lesson, let us all three go there; and I'll show you, papers in hand, how you can save him from the sheriff and Clichy if you choose to be the good girl that you are."
"Try that on others than Florine, my little man. I am certain that Nathan has never been in love with any one but me."
"On the contrary, he has been in love with a woman in society for over a year—"
"A woman in society, he!" cried Florine. "I don't trouble myself about such nonsense as that."
"Well, do you want me to make him come and tell you that he will not take you home from here to-night."
"If you can make him tell me that," said Florine, "I'll take you home, and we'll look for those letters, which I shall believe in when I see them, and not till then. He must have written them while I slept."
"Stay here," said Felix, "and watch."
So saying, he took the arm of his wife and moved to a little distance. Presently, Nathan, who had been hunting up and down the foyer like a dog looking for its master, returned to the spot where the mask had addressed him. Seeing on his face an expression he could not conceal, Florine placed herself like a post in front of him, and said, imperiously:—
"I don't wish you to leave me again; I have my reasons for this."
The countess then, at the instigation of her husband, went up to Raoul and said in his ear,—
"Marie. Who is this woman? Leave her at once, and meet me at the foot of the grand staircase."
In this difficult extremity Raoul dropped Florine's arm, and though she caught his own and held it forcibly, she was obliged, after a moment, to let him go. Nathan disappeared into the crowd.
"What did I tell you?" said Felix in Florine's astonished ears, offering her his arm.
"Come," she said; "whoever you are, come. Have you a carriage here?"
For all answer, Vandenesse hurried Florine away, followed by his wife. A few moments later the three masks, driven rapidly by the Vandenesse coachman, reached Florine's house. As soon as she had entered her own apartments the actress unmasked. Madame de Vandenesse could not restrain a quiver of surprise at Florine's beauty as she stood there choking with anger, and superb in her wrath and jealousy.
"There is, somewhere in these rooms," said Vandenesse, "a portfolio, the key of which you have never had; the letters are probably in it."
"Well, well, for once in my life I am bewildered; you know something that I have been uneasy about for some days," cried Florine, rushing into the study in search of the portfolio.
Vandenesse saw that his wife was turning pale beneath her mask. Florine's apartment revealed more about the intimacy of the actress and Nathan than any ideal mistress would wish to know. The eye of a woman can take in the truth of such things in a second, and the countess saw vestiges of Nathan which proved to her the certainty of what Vandenesse had said. Florine returned with the portfolio.
"How am I to open it?" she said.
The actress rang the bell and sent into the kitchen for the cook's knife. When it came she brandished it in the air, crying out in ironical tones:—
"With this they cut the necks of 'poulets.'"
The words, which made the countess shiver, explained to her, even better than her husband had done the night before, the depths of the abyss into which she had so nearly fallen.
"What a fool I am!" said Florine; "his razor will do better."
She fetched one of Nathan's razors from his dressing-table, and slit the leather cover of the portfolio, through which Marie's letters dropped. Florine snatched one up hap-hazard, and looked it over.
"Yes, she must be a well-bred woman. It looks to me as if there were no mistakes in spelling here."
The count gathered up the letters hastily and gave them to his wife, who took them to a table as if to see that they were all there.
"Now," said Vandenesse to Florine, "will you let me have those letters for these?" showing her five bank-bills of ten thousand francs each. "They'll replace the sums you have paid for him."
"Ah!" cried Florine, "didn't I kill myself body and soul in the provinces to get him money,—I, who'd have cut my hand off to serve him? But that's men! damn your soul for them and they'll march over you rough-shod! He shall pay me for this!"
Madame de Vandenesse was disappearing with the letters.
"Hi! stop, stop, my fine mask!" cried Florine; "leave me one to confound him with."
"Not possible," said Vandenesse.
"That mask is your ex-rival; but you needn't fear her now."
"Well, she might have had the grace to say thank you," cried Florine.
"But you have the fifty thousand francs instead," said Vandenesse, bowing to her.
It is extremely rare for young men, when driven to suicide, to attempt it a second time if the first fails. When it doesn't cure life, it cures all desire for voluntary death. Raoul felt no disposition to try it again when he found himself in a more painful position than that from which he had just been rescued. He tried to see the countess and explain to her the nature of his love, which now shone more vividly in his soul than ever. But the first time they met in society, Madame de Vandenesse gave him that fixed and contemptuous look which at once and forever puts an impassable gulf between a man and a woman. In spite of his natural assurance, Nathan never dared, during the rest of the winter, either to speak to the countess or even approach her.
But he opened his heart to Blondet; to him he talked of his Laura and his Beatrice, apropos of Madame de Vandenesse. He even made a paraphrase of the following beautiful passage from the pen of Theophile Gautier, one of the most remarkable poets of our day:—
"'Ideala, flower of heaven's own blue, with heart of gold, whose fibrous roots, softer, a thousandfold, than fairy tresses, strike to our souls and drink their purest essence; flower most sweet and bitter! thou canst not be torn away without the heart's blood flowing, without thy bruised stems sweating with scarlet tears. Ah! cursed flower, why didst thou grow within my soul?'"
"My dear fellow," said Blondet, "you are raving. I'll grant it was a pretty flower, but it wasn't a bit ideal, and instead of singing like a blind man before an empty niche, you had much better wash your hands and make submission to the powers. You are too much of an artist ever to be a good politician; you have been fooled by men of not one-half your value. Think about being fooled again—but elsewhere."
"Marie cannot prevent my loving her," said Nathan; "she shall be my Beatrice."
"Beatrice, my good Raoul, was a little girl twelve years of age when Dante last saw her; otherwise, she would not have been Beatrice. To make a divinity, it won't do to see her one day wrapped in a mantle, and the next with a low dress, and the third on the boulevard, cheapening toys for her last baby. When a man has Florine, who is in turn duchess, bourgeoise, Negress, marquise, colonel, Swiss peasant, virgin of the sun in Peru (only way she can play the part), I don't see why he should go rambling after fashionable women."
Du Tillet, to use a Bourse term, executed Nathan, who, for lack of money, gave up his place on the newspaper; and the celebrated man received but five votes in the electoral college where the banker was elected.
When, after a long and happy journey in Italy, the Comtesse de Vandenesse returned to Paris late in the following winter, all her husband's predictions about Nathan were justified. He had taken Blondet's advice and negotiated with the government, which employed his pen. His personal affairs were in such disorder that one day, on the Champs-Elysees, Marie saw her former adorer on foot, in shabby clothes, giving his arm to Florine. When a man becomes indifferent to the heart of a woman who has once loved him, he often seems to her very ugly, even horrible, especially when he resembles Nathan. Madame de Vandenesse had a sense of personal humiliation in the thought that she had once cared for him. If she had not already been cured of all extra-conjugal passion, the contrast then presented by the count to this man, grown less and less worthy of public favor, would have sufficed her.
To-day the ambitious Nathan, rich in ink and poor in will, has ended by capitulating entirely, and has settled down into a sinecure, like any other commonplace man. After lending his pen to all disorganizing efforts, he now lives in peace under the protecting shade of a ministerial organ. The cross of the Legion of honor, formerly the fruitful text of his satire, adorns his button-hole. "Peace at any price," ridicule of which was the stock-in-trade of his revolutionary editorship, is now the topic of his laudatory articles. Heredity, attacked by him in Saint-Simonian phrases, he now defends with solid arguments. This illogical conduct has its origin and its explanation in the change of front performed by many men besides Raoul during our recent political evolutions.