A Daughter of Eve (Balzac)/Chapter VI
On the morrow of the ball given by Lady Dudley, Marie, without having received the slightest declaration, believed that she was loved by Raoul according to the programme of her dreams, and Raoul was aware that the countess had chosen him for her lover. Though neither had reached the incline of such emotions where preliminaries are abridged, both were on the road to it. Raoul, wearied with the dissipations of life, longed for an ideal world, while Marie, from whom the thought of wrong-doing was far, indeed, never imagined the possibility of going out of such a world. No love was ever more innocent or purer than theirs; but none was ever more enthusiastic or more entrancing in thought.
The countess was captivated by ideas worthy of the days of chivalry, though completely modernized. The glowing conversation of the poet had more echo in her mind than in her heart. She thought it fine to be his providence. How sweet the thought of supporting by her white and feeble hand this colossus,—whose feet of clay she did not choose to see; of giving life where life was needed; of being secretly the creator of a career; of helping a man of genius to struggle with fate and master it. Ah! to embroider his scarf for the tournament! to procure him weapons! to be his talisman against ill-fortune! his balm for every wound! For a woman brought up like Marie, religious and noble as she was, such a love was a form of charity. Hence the boldness of it. Pure sentiments often compromise themselves with a lofty disdain that resembles the boldness of courtesans.
As soon as by her specious distinctions Marie had convinced herself that she did not in any way impair her conjugal faith, she rushed into the happiness of loving Raoul. The least little things of her daily life acquired a charm. Her boudoir, where she thought of him, became a sanctuary. There was nothing there that did not rouse some sense of pleasure; even her ink-stand was the coming accomplice in the pleasures of correspondence; for she would now have letters to read and answer. Dress, that splendid poesy of the feminine life, unknown or exhausted by her, appeared to her eyes endowed with a magic hitherto unperceived. It suddenly became clear to her what it is to most women, the manifestation of an inward thought, a language, a symbol. How many enjoyments in a toilet arranged to please him, to do him honor! She gave herself up ingenuously to all those gracefully charming things in which so many Parisian women spend their lives, and which give such significance to all that we see about them, and in them, and on them. Few women go to milliners and dressmakers for their own pleasure and interest. When old they never think of adornment. The next time you meet in the street a young woman stopping for a moment to look into a shop-window, examine her face carefully. "Will he think I look better in that?" are the words written on that fair brow, in the eyes sparkling with hope, in the smile that flickers on the lips.
Lady Dudley's ball took place on a Saturday night. On the following Monday the countess went to the Opera, feeling certain of seeing Raoul, who was, in fact, watching for her on one of the stairways leading down to the stalls. With what delight did she observe the unwonted care he had bestowed upon his clothes. This despiser of the laws of elegance had brushed and perfumed his hair; his waistcoat followed the fashion, his cravat was well tied, the bosom of his shirt was irreproachably smooth. Raoul was standing with his arms crossed as if posed for his portrait, magnificently indifferent to the rest of the audience and full of repressed impatience. Though lowered, his eyes were turned to the red velvet cushion on which lay Marie's arm. Felix, seated in the opposite corner of the box, had his back to Nathan.
So, in a moment, as it were, Marie had compelled this remarkable man to abjure his cynicism in the line of clothes. All women, high or low, are filled with delight on seeing a first proof of their power in one of these sudden metamorphoses. Such changes are an admission of serfdom.
"Those women were right; there is a great pleasure in being understood," she said to herself, thinking of her treacherous friends.
When the two lovers had gazed around the theatre with that glance that takes in everything, they exchanged a look of intelligence. It was for each as if some celestial dew had refreshed their hearts, burned-up with expectation.
"I have been here for an hour in purgatory, but now the heavens are opening," said Raoul's eyes.
"I knew you were waiting, but how could I help it?" replied those of the countess.
Thieves, spies, lovers, diplomats, and slaves of any kind alone know the resources and comforts of a glance. They alone know what it contains of meaning, sweetness, thought, anger, villainy, displayed by the modification of that ray of light which conveys the soul. Between the box of the Comtesse Felix de Vandenesse and the step on which Raoul had perched there were barely thirty feet; and yet it was impossible to wipe out that distance. To a fiery being, who had hitherto known no space between his wishes and their gratification, this imaginary but insuperable gulf inspired a mad desire to spring to the countess with the bound of a tiger. In a species of rage he determined to try the ground and bow openly to the countess. She returned the bow with one of those slight inclinations of the head with which women take from their adorers all desire to continue their attempt. Comte Felix turned round to see who had bowed to his wife; he saw Nathan, but did not bow, and seemed to inquire the meaning of such audacity; then he turned back slowly and said a few words to his wife. Evidently the door of that box was closed to Nathan, who cast a terrible look of hatred upon Felix.
Madame d'Espard had seen the whole thing from her box, which was just above where Raoul was standing. She raised her voice in crying bravo to some singer, which caused Nathan to look up to her; he bowed and received in return a gracious smile which seemed to say:—
"If they won't admit you there come here to me."
Raoul obeyed the silent summons and went to her box. He felt the need of showing himself in a place which might teach that little Vandenesse that fame was every whit as good as nobility, and that all doors turned on their hinges to admit him. The marquise made him sit in front of her. She wanted to question him.
"Madame Felix de Vandenesse is fascinating in that gown," she said, complimenting the dress as if it were a book he had published the day before.
"Yes," said Raoul, indifferently, "marabouts are very becoming to her; but she seems wedded to them; she wore them on Saturday," he added, in a careless tone, as if to repudiate the intimacy Madame d'Espard was fastening upon him.
"You know the proverb," she replied. "There is no good fete without a morrow."
In the matter of repartees literary celebrities are often not as quick as women. Raoul pretended dulness, a last resort for clever men.
"That proverb is true in my case," he said, looking gallantly at the marquise.
"My dear friend, your speech comes too late; I can't accept it," she said, laughing. "Don't be so prudish! Come, I know how it was; you complimented Madame de Vandenesse at the ball on her marabouts and she has put them on again for your sake. She likes you, and you adore her; it may be a little rapid, but it is all very natural. If I were mistaken you wouldn't be twisting your gloves like a man who is furious at having to sit here with me instead of flying to the box of his idol. She has obtained," continued Madame d'Espard, glancing at his person impertinently, "certain sacrifices which you refused to make to society. She ought to be delighted with her success,—in fact, I have no doubt she is vain of it; I should be so in her place—immensely. She was never a woman of any mind, but she may now pass for one of genius. I am sure you will describe her in one of those delightful novels you write. And pray don't forget Vandenesse; put him in to please me. Really, his self-sufficiency is too much. I can't stand that Jupiter Olympian air of his,—the only mythological character exempt, they say, from ill-luck."
"Madame," cried Raoul, "you rate my soul very low if you think me capable of trafficking with my feelings, my affections. Rather than commit such literary baseness, I would do as they do in England,—put a rope round a woman's neck and sell her in the market."
"But I know Marie; she would like you to do it."
"She is incapable of liking it," said Raoul, vehemently.
"Oh! then you do know her well?"
Nathan laughed; he, the maker of scenes, to be trapped into playing one himself!
"Comedy is no longer there," he said, nodding at the stage; "it is here, in you."
He took his opera-glass and looked about the theatre to recover countenance.
"You are not angry with me, I hope?" said the marquise, giving him a sidelong glance. "I should have had your secret somehow. Let us make peace. Come and see me; I receive every Wednesday, and I am sure the dear countess will never miss an evening if I let her know you will be there. So I shall be the gainer. Sometimes she comes between four and five o'clock, and I'll be kind and add you to the little set of favorites I admit at that hour."
"Ah!" cried Raoul, "how the world judges; it calls you unkind."
"So I am when I need to be," she replied. "We must defend ourselves. But your countess I adore; you will be contented with her; she is charming. Your name will be the first engraved upon her heart with that infantine joy that makes a lad cut the initials of his love on the barks of trees."
Raoul was aware of the danger of such conversations, in which a Parisian woman excels; he feared the marquise would extract some admission from him which she would instantly turn into ridicule among her friends. He therefore withdrew, prudently, as Lady Dudley entered.
"Well?" said the Englishwoman to the marquise, "how far have they got?"
"They are madly in love; he has just told me so."
"I wish he were uglier," said Lady Dudley, with a viperish look at Comte Felix. "In other respects he is just what I want him: the son of a Jew broker who died a bankrupt soon after his marriage; but the mother was a Catholic, and I am sorry to say she made a Christian of the boy."
This origin, which Nathan thought carefully concealed, Lady Dudley had just discovered, and she enjoyed by anticipation the pleasure she should have in launching some terrible epigram against Vandenesse.
"Heavens! I have just invited him to my house!" cried Madame d'Espard.
"Didn't I receive him at my ball?" replied Lady Dudley. "Some pleasures, my dear love, are costly."
The news of the mutual attachment between Raoul and Madame de Vandenesse circulated in the world after this, but not without exciting denials and incredulity. The countess, however, was defended by her friends, Lady Dudley, and Mesdames d'Espard and de Manerville, with an unnecessary warmth that gave a certain color to the calumny.
On the following Wednesday evening Raoul went to Madame d'Espard's, and was able to exchange a few sentences with Marie, more expressive by their tones than their ideas. In the midst of the elegant assembly both found pleasure in those enjoyable sensations given by the voice, the gestures, the attitude of one beloved. The soul then fastens upon absolute nothings. No longer do ideas or even language speak, but things; and these so loudly, that often a man lets another pay the small attentions—bring a cup of tea, or the sugar to sweeten it—demanded by the woman he loves, fearful of betraying his emotion to eyes that seem to see nothing and yet see all. Raoul, however, a man indifferent to the eyes of the world, betrayed his passion in his speech and was brilliantly witty. The company listened to the roar of a discourse inspired by the restraint put upon him; restraint being that which artists cannot endure. This Rolandic fury, this wit which slashed down all things, using epigram as its weapon, intoxicated Marie and amused the circle around them, as the sight of a bull goaded with banderols amuses the company in a Spanish circus.
"You may kick as you please, but you can't make a solitude about you," whispered Blondet.
The words brought Raoul to his senses, and he ceased to exhibit his irritation to the company. Madame d'Espard came up to offer him a cup of tea, and said loud enough for Madame de Vandenesse to hear:—
"You are certainly very amusing; come and see me sometimes at four o'clock."
The word "amusing" offended Raoul, though it was used as the ground of an invitation. Blondet took pity on him.
"My dear fellow," he said, taking him aside into a corner, "you are behaving in society as if you were at Florine's. Here no one shows annoyance, or spouts long articles; they say a few words now and then, they look their calmest when most desirous of flinging others out of the window; they sneer softly, they pretend not to think of the woman they adore, and they are careful not to roll like a donkey on the high-road. In society, my good Raoul, conventions rule love. Either carry off Madame de Vandenesse, or show yourself a gentleman. As it is, you are playing the lover in one of your own books."
Nathan listened with his head lowered; he was like a lion caught in a toil.
"I'll never set foot in this house again," he cried. "That papier-mache marquise sells her tea too dear. She thinks me amusing! I understand now why Saint-Just wanted to guillotine this whole class of people."
"You'll be back here to-morrow."
Blondet was right. Passions are as mean as they are cruel. The next day after long hesitation between "I'll go—I'll not go," Raoul left his new partners in the midst of an important discussion and rushed to Madame d'Espard's house in the faubourg Saint-Honore. Beholding Rastignac's elegant cabriolet enter the court-yard while he was paying his cab at the gate, Nathan's vanity was stung; he resolved to have a cabriolet himself, and its accompanying tiger, too. The carriage of the countess was in the court-yard, and the sight of it swelled Raoul's heart with joy. Marie was advancing under the pressure of her desires with the regularity of the hands of a clock obeying the mainspring. He found her sitting at the corner of the fireplace in the little salon. Instead of looking at Nathan when he was announced, she looked at his reflection in a mirror.
"Monsieur le ministre," said Madame d'Espard, addressing Nathan, and presenting him to de Marsay by a glance, "was maintaining, when you came in, that the royalists and the republicans have a secret understanding. You ought to know something about it; is it so?"
"If it were so," said Raoul, "where's the harm? We hate the same thing; we agree as to our hatreds, we differ only in our love. That's the whole of it."
"The alliance is odd enough," said de Marsay, giving a comprehensively meaning glance at the Comtesse Felix and Nathan.
"It won't last," said Rastignac, thinking, perhaps, wholly of politics.
"What do you think, my dear?" asked Madame d'Espard, addressing Marie.
"I know nothing of public affairs," replied the countess.
"But you soon will, madame," said de Marsay, "and then you will be doubly our enemy."
So saying he left the room with Rastignac, and Madame d'Espard accompanied them to the door of the first salon. The lovers had the room to themselves for a few moments. Marie held out her ungloved hand to Raoul, who took and kissed it as though he were eighteen years old. The eyes of the countess expressed so noble a tenderness that the tears which men of nervous temperament can always find at their service came into Raoul's eyes.
"Where can I see you? where can I speak with you?" he said. "It is death to be forced to disguise my voice, my look, my heart, my love—"
Moved by that tear Marie promised to drive daily in the Bois, unless the weather were extremely bad. This promise gave Raoul more pleasure than he had found in Florine for the last five years.
"I have so many things to say to you! I suffer from the silence to which we are condemned—"
The countess looked at him eagerly without replying, and at that moment Madame d'Espard returned to the room.
"Why didn't you answer de Marsay?" she said as she entered.
"We ought to respect the dead," replied Raoul. "Don't you see that he is dying? Rastignac is his nurse,—hoping to be put in the will."
The countess pretended to have other visits to pay, and left the house.
For this quarter of an hour Raoul had sacrificed important interests and most precious time. Marie was perfectly ignorant of the life of such men, involved in complicated affairs and burdened with exacting toil. Women of society are still under the influence of the traditions of the eighteenth century, in which all positions were definite and assured. Few women know the harassments in the life of most men who in these days have a position to make and to maintain, a fame to reach, a fortune to consolidate. Men of settled wealth and position can now be counted; old men alone have time to love; young men are rowing, like Nathan, the galleys of ambition. Women are not yet resigned to this change of customs; they suppose the same leisure of which they have too much in those who have none; they cannot imagine other occupations, other ends in life than their own. When a lover has vanquished the Lernean hydra in order to pay them a visit he has no merit in their eyes; they are only grateful to him for the pleasure he gives; they neither know nor care what it costs. Raoul became aware as he returned from this visit how difficult it would be to hold the reins of a love-affair in society, the ten-horsed chariot of journalism, his dramas on the stage, and his generally involved affairs.
"The paper will be wretched to-night," he thought, as he walked away. "No article of mine, and only the second number, too!"
Madame Felix de Vandenesse drove three times to the Bois de Boulogne without finding Raoul; the third time she came back anxious and uneasy. The fact was that Nathan did not choose to show himself in the Bois until he could go there as a prince of the press. He employed a whole week in searching for horses, a phantom and a suitable tiger, and in convincing his partners of the necessity of saving time so precious to them, and therefore of charging his equipage to the costs of the journal. His associates, Massol and du Tillet agreed to this so readily that he really believed them the best fellows in the world. Without this help, however, life would have been simply impossible to Raoul; as it was, it became so irksome that many men, even those of the strongest constitutions, could not have borne it. A violent and successful passion takes a great deal of space in an ordinary life; but when it is connected with a woman in the social position of Madame de Vandenesse it sucks the life out of a man as busy as Raoul. Here is a list of the obligations his passion imposed upon him.
Every day, or nearly every day, he was obliged to be on horseback in the Bois, between two and three o'clock, in the careful dress of a gentleman of leisure. He had to learn at what house or theatre he could meet Madame de Vandenesse in the evening. He was not able to leave the party or the play until long after midnight, having obtained nothing better than a few tender sentences, long awaited, said in a doorway, or hastily as he put her into her carriage. It frequently happened that Marie, who by this time had launched him into the great world, procured for him invitations to dinner in certain houses where she went herself. All this seemed the simplest life in the world to her. Raoul moved by pride and led on by his passion never told her of his labors. He obeyed the will of this innocent sovereign, followed in her train, followed, also, the parliamentary debates, edited and wrote for his newspaper, and put upon the stage two plays, the money for which was absolutely indispensable to him. It sufficed for Madame de Vandenesse to make a little face of displeasure when he tried to excuse himself from attending a ball, a concert, or from driving in the Bois, to compel him to sacrifice his most pressing interests to her good pleasure. When he left society between one and two in the morning he went straight to work until eight or nine. He was scarcely asleep before he was obliged to be up and concocting the opinions of his journal with the men of political influence on whom he depended,—not to speak of the thousand and one other details of the paper. Journalism is connected with everything in these days; with industrial concerns, with public and private interests, with all new enterprises, and all the schemes of literature, its self-loves, and its products.
When Nathan, harassed and fatigued, would rush from his editorial office to the theatre, from the theatre to the Chamber, from the Chamber to face certain creditors, he was forced to appear in the Bois with a calm countenance, and gallop beside Marie's carriage in the leisurely style of a man devoid of cares and with no other duties than those of love. When in return for this toilsome and wholly ignored devotion all he won were a few sweet words, the prettiest assurances of eternal attachment, ardent pressures of the hand on the very few occasions when they found themselves alone, he began to feel he was rather duped by leaving his mistress in ignorance of the enormous costs of these "little attentions," as our fathers called them. The occasion for an explanation arrived in due time.
On a fine April morning the countess accepted Nathan's arm for a walk through the sequestered path of the Bois de Boulogne. She intended to make him one of those pretty little quarrels apropos of nothing, which women are so fond of exciting. Instead of greeting him as usual, with a smile upon her lips, her forehead illumined with pleasure, her eyes bright with some gay or delicate thought, she assumed a grave and serious aspect.
"What is the matter?" said Nathan.
"Why do you pretend to such ignorance?" she replied. "You ought to know that a woman is not a child."
"Have I displeased you?"
"Should I be here if you had?"
"But you don't smile to me; you don't seem happy to see me."
"Oh! do you accuse me of sulking?" she said, looking at him with that submissive air which women assume when they want to seem victims.
Nathan walked on a few steps in a state of real apprehension which oppressed him.
"It must be," he said, after a moment's silence, "one of those frivolous fears, those hazy suspicions which women dwell on more than they do on the great things of life. You all have a way of tipping the world sideways with a straw, a cobweb—"
"Sarcasm!" she said, "I might have expected it!"
"Marie, my angel, I only said those words to wring your secret out of you."
"My secret would be always a secret, even if I told it to you."
"But all the same, tell it to me."
"I am not loved," she said, giving him one of those sly oblique glances with which women question so maliciously the men they are trying to torment.
"Not loved!" cried Nathan.
"No; you are too occupied with other things. What am I to you in the midst of them? forgotten on the least occasion! Yesterday I came to the Bois and you were not here—"
"I had put on a new dress expressly to please you; you did not come; where were you?"
"I did not know where. I went to Madame d'Espard's; you were not there."
"That evening at the Opera, I watched the balcony; every time a door opened my heart was beating!"
"What an evening I had! You don't reflect on such tempests of the heart."
"Life is shortened by such emotions."
"Well, what?" she said.
"You are right; life is shortened by them," said Nathan, "and in a few months you will utterly have consumed mine. Your unreasonable reproaches drag my secret from me— Ha! you say you are not loved; you are loved too well."
And thereupon he vividly depicted his position, told of his sleepless nights, his duties at certain hours, the absolute necessity of succeeding in his enterprise, the insatiable requirements of a newspaper in which he was required to judge the events of the whole world without blundering, under pain of losing his power, and so losing all, the infinite amount of rapid study he was forced to give to questions which passed as rapidly as clouds in this all-consuming age, etc., etc.
Raoul made a great mistake. The Marquise d'Espard had said to him on one occasion, "Nothing is more naive than a first love." As he unfolded before Marie's eyes this life which seemed to her immense, the countess was overcome with admiration. She had thought Nathan grand, she now considered him sublime. She blamed herself for loving him too much; begged him to come to her only when he could do so without difficulty. Wait? indeed she could wait! In future, she should know how to sacrifice her enjoyments. Wishing to be his stepping-stone was she really an obstacle? She wept with despair.
"Women," she said, with tears in her eyes, "can only love; men act; they have a thousand ways in which they are bound to act. But we can only think, and pray, and worship."
A love that had sacrificed so much for her sake deserved a recompense. She looked about her like a nightingale descending from a leafy covert to drink at a spring, to see if she were alone in the solitude, if the silence hid no witness; then she raised her head to Raoul, who bent his own, and let him take one kiss, the first and the only one that she ever gave in secret, feeling happier at that moment than she had felt in five years. Raoul thought all his toils well-paid. They both walked forward they scarcely knew where, but it was on the road to Auteuil; presently, however, they were forced to return and find their carriages, pacing together with the rhythmic step well-known to lovers. Raoul had faith in that kiss given with the quiet facility of a sacred sentiment. All the evil of it was in the mind of the world, not in that of the woman who walked beside him. Marie herself, given over to the grateful admiration which characterizes the love of woman, walked with a firm, light step on the gravelled path, saying, like Raoul, but few words; yet those few were felt and full of meaning. The sky was cloudless, the tall trees had burgeoned, a few green shoots were already brightening their myriad of brown twigs. The shrubs, the birches, the willows, the poplars were showing their first diaphanous and tender foliage. No soul resists these harmonies. Love explained Nature as it had already explained society to Marie's heart.
"I wish you have never loved any one but me," she said.
"Your wish is realized," replied Raoul. "We have awakened in each other the only true love."
He spoke the truth as he felt it. Posing before this innocent young heart as a pure man, Raoul was caught himself by his own fine sentiments. At first purely speculative and born of vanity, his love had now become sincere. He began by lying, he had ended in speaking truth. In all writers there is ever a sentiment, difficult to stifle, which impels them to admire the highest good. The countess, on her part, after her first rush of gratitude and surprise, was charmed to have inspired such sacrifices, to have caused him to surmount such difficulties. She was beloved by a man who was worthy of her! Raoul was totally ignorant to what his imaginary grandeur bound him. Women will not suffer their idol to step down from his pedestal. They do not forgive the slightest pettiness in a god. Marie was far from knowing the solution to the riddle given by Raoul to his friends at Very's. The struggle of this writer, risen from the lower classes, had cost him the ten first years of his youth; and now in the days of his success he longed to be loved by one of the queens of the great world. Vanity, without which, as Champfort says, love would be but a feeble thing, sustained his passion and increased it day by day.
"Can you swear to me," said Marie, "that you belong and will never belong to any other woman?"
"There is neither time in my life nor place in my heart for any other woman," replied Raoul, not thinking that he told a lie, so little did he value Florine.
"I believe you," she said.
When they reached the alley where their carriages were waiting, Marie dropped Raoul's arm, and the young man assumed a respectful and distant attitude as if he had just met her; he accompanied her, with his hat off, to her carriage, then he followed her by the Avenue Charles X., breathing in, with satisfaction, the very dust her caleche raised.
In spite of Marie's high renunciations, Raoul continued to follow her everywhere; he adored the air of mingled pleasure and displeasure with which she scolded him for wasting his precious time. She took direction of his labors, she gave him formal orders on the employment of his time; she stayed at home to deprive him of every pretext for dissipation. Every morning she read his paper, and became the herald of his staff of editors, of Etienne Lousteau the feuilletonist, whom she thought delightful, of Felicien Vernou, of Claude Vignon,—in short, of the whole staff. She advised Raoul to do justice to de Marsay when he died, and she read with deep emotion the noble eulogy which Raoul published upon the dead minister while blaming his Machiavelianism and his hatred for the masses. She was present, of course, at the Gymnase on the occasion of the first representation of the play upon the proceeds of which Nathan relied to support his enterprise, and was completely duped by the purchased applause.
"You did not bid farewell to the Italian opera," said Lady Dudley, to whose house she went after the performance.
"No, I went to the Gymnase. They gave a first representation."
"I can't endure vaudevilles. I am like Louis XIV. about Teniers," said Lady Dudley.
"For my part," said Madame d'Espard, "I think actors have greatly improved. Vaudevilles in the present day are really charming comedies, full of wit, requiring great talent; they amuse me very much."
"The actors are excellent, too," said Marie. "Those at the Gymnase played very well to-night; the piece pleased them; the dialogue was witty and keen."
"Like those of Beaumarchais," said Lady Dudley.
"Monsieur Nathan is not Moliere as yet, but—" said Madame d'Espard, looking at the countess.
"He makes vaudevilles," said Madame Charles de Vandenesse.
"And unmakes ministries," added Madame de Manerville.
The countess was silent; she wanted to answer with a sharp repartee; her heart was bounding with anger, but she could find nothing better to say than,—
"He will make them, perhaps."
All the women looked at each other with mysterious significance. When Marie de Vandenesse departed Moina de Saint-Heren exclaimed:—
"She adores him."
"And she makes no secret of it," said Madame d'Espard.