Esther Happy/Section 1
In 1824, at the last opera ball of the season, several masks were struck by the beauty of a youth who was wandering about the passages and greenroom with the air of a man in search of a woman kept at home by unexpected circumstances. The secret of this behavior, now dilatory and again hurried, is known only to old women and to certain experienced loungers. In this immense assembly the crowd does not trouble itself much to watch the crowd; each one's interest is impassioned, and even idlers are preoccupied.
The young dandy was so much absorbed in his anxious quest that he did not observe his own success; he did not hear, he did not see the ironical exclamations of admiration, the genuine appreciation, the biting gibes, the soft invitations of some of the masks. Though he was so handsome as to rank among those exceptional persons who come to an opera ball in search of an adventure, and who expect it as confidently as men looked for a lucky coup at roulette in Frascati's day, he seemed quite philosophically sure of his evening; he must be the hero of one of those mysteries with three actors which constitute an opera ball, and are known only to those who play a part in them; for, to young wives who come merely to say, "I have seen it," to country people, to inexperienced youths, and to foreigners, the opera house must on those nights be the palace of fatigue and dulness. To these, that black swarm, slow and serried—coming, going, winding, turning, returning, mounting, descending, comparable only to ants on a pile of wood—is no more intelligible than the Bourse to a Breton peasant who has never heard of the Grand livre.
With a few rare exceptions, men wear no masks in Paris; a man in a domino is thought ridiculous. In this the spirit of the nation betrays itself. Men who want to hide their good fortune can enjoy the opera ball without going there; and masks who are absolutely compelled to go in come out again at once. One of the most amusing scenes is the crush at the doors produced as soon as the dancing begins, by the rush of persons getting away and struggling with those who are pushing in. So the men who wear masks are either jealous husbands who come to watch their wives, or husbands on the loose who do not wish to be watched by them—two situations equally ridiculous.
Now, our young man was followed, though he knew it not, by a man in a mask, dogging his steps, short and stout, with a rolling gait, like a barrel. To every one familiar with the opera this disguise betrayed a stock-broker, a banker, a lawyer, some citizen soul suspicious of infidelity. For in fact, in really high society, no one courts such humiliating proofs. Several masks had laughed as they pointed this preposterous figure out to each other; some had spoken to him, a few young men had made game of him, but his stolid manner showed entire contempt for these aimless shafts; he went on whither the young man led him, as a hunted wild boar goes on and pays no heed to the bullets whistling about his ears, or the dogs barking at his heels.
Though at first sight pleasure and anxiety wear the same livery—the noble black robe of Venice—and though all is confusion at an opera ball, the various circles composing Parisian society meet there, recognize, and watch each other. There are certain ideas so clear to the initiated that this scrawled medley of interests is as legible to them as any amusing novel. So, to these old hands, this man could not be here by appointment; he would infallibly have worn some token, red, white, or green, such as notifies a happy meeting previously agreed on. Was it a case of revenge?
Seeing the domino following so closely in the wake of a man apparently happy in an assignation, some of the gazers looked again at the handsome face, on which anticipation had set its divine halo. The youth was interesting; the longer he wandered, the more curiosity he excited. Everything about him proclaimed the habits of refined life. In obedience to a fatal law of the time we live in, there is not much difference, physical or moral, between the most elegant and best bred son of a duke and peer and this attractive youth, whom poverty had not long since held in its iron grip in the heart of Paris. Beauty and youth might cover him in deep gulfs, as in many a young man who longs to play a part in Paris without having the capital to support his pretensions, and who, day after day, risks all to win all, by sacrificing to the god who has most votaries in this royal city, namely, Chance. At the same time, his dress and manners were above reproach; he trod the classic floor of the opera house as one accustomed there. Who can have failed to observe that there, as in every zone in Paris, there is a manner of being which shows who you are, what you are doing, whence you come, and what you want?
"What a handsome young fellow; and here we may turn round to look at him," said a mask, in whom accustomed eyes recognized a lady of position.
"Do you not remember him?" replied the man on whose arm she was leaning. "Madame du Chatelet introduced him to you——"
"What, is that the apothecary's son she fancied herself in love with, who became a journalist, Mademoiselle Coralie's lover?"
"I fancied he had fallen too low ever to pull himself up again, and I cannot understand how he can show himself again in the world of Paris," said the Comte Sixte du Chatelet.
"He has the air of a prince," the mask went on, "and it is not the actress he lived with who could give it to him. My cousin, who understood him, could not lick him into shape. I should like to know the mistress of this Sargine; tell me something about him that will enable me to mystify him."
This couple, whispering as they watched the young man, became the object of study to the square-shouldered domino.
"Dear Monsieur Chardon," said the Prefet of the Charente, taking the dandy's hand, "allow me to introduce you to some one who wishes to renew acquaintance with you——"
"Dear Comte Chatelet," replied the young man, "that lady taught me how ridiculous was the name by which you address me. A patent from the king has restored to me that of my mother's family—the Rubempres. Although the fact has been announced in the papers, it relates to so unimportant a person that I need not blush to recall it to my friends, my enemies, and those who are neither——You may class yourself where you will, but I am sure you will not disapprove of a step to which I was advised by your wife when she was still only Madame de Bargeton."
This neat retort, which made the Marquise smile, gave the Prefet of la Charente a nervous chill. "You may tell her," Lucien went on, "that I now bear gules, a bull raging argent on a meadow vert."
"Raging argent," echoed Chatelet.
"Madame la Marquise will explain to you, if you do not know, why that old coat is a little better than the chamberlain's key and Imperial gold bees which you bear on yours, to the great despair of Madame Chatelet, nee Negrepelisse d'Espard," said Lucien quickly.
"Since you recognize me, I cannot puzzle you; and I could never tell you how much you puzzle me," said the Marquise d'Espard, amazed at the coolness and impertinence to which the man had risen whom she had formerly despised.
"Then allow me, madame, to preserve my only chance of occupying your thoughts by remaining in that mysterious twilight," said he, with the smile of a man who does not wish to risk assured happiness.
"I congratulate you on your changed fortunes," said the Comte du Chatelet to Lucien.
"I take it as you offer it," replied Lucien, bowing with much grace to the Marquise.
"What a coxcomb!" said the Count in an undertone to Madame d'Espard. "He has succeeded in winning an ancestry."
"With these young men such coxcombry, when it is addressed to us, almost always implies some success in high places," said the lady; "for with you older men it means ill-fortune. And I should very much like to know which of my grand lady friends has taken this fine bird under her patronage; then I might find the means of amusing myself this evening. My ticket, anonymously sent, is no doubt a bit of mischief planned by a rival and having something to do with this young man. His impertinence is to order; keep an eye on him. I will take the Duc de Navarrein's arm. You will be able to find me again."
Just as Madame d'Espard was about to address her cousin, the mysterious mask came between her and the Duke to whisper in her ear:
"Lucien loves you; he wrote the note. Your Prefet is his greatest foe; how can he speak in his presence?"
The stranger moved off, leaving Madame d'Espard a prey to a double surprise. The Marquise knew no one in the world who was capable of playing the part assumed by this mask; she suspected a snare, and went to sit down out of sight. The Comte Sixte du Chatelet—whom Lucien had abridged of his ambitious du with an emphasis that betrayed long meditated revenge—followed the handsome dandy, and presently met a young man to whom he thought he could speak without reserve.
"Well, Rastignac, have you seen Lucien? He has come out in a new skin."
"If I were half as good looking as he is, I should be twice as rich," replied the fine gentleman, in a light but meaning tone, expressive of keen raillery.
"No!" said the fat mask in his ear, repaying a thousand ironies in one by the accent he lent the monosyllable.
Rastignac, who was not the man to swallow an affront, stood as if struck by lightning, and allowed himself to be led into a recess by a grasp of iron which he could not shake off.
"You young cockerel, hatched in Mother Vauquer's coop—you, whose heart failed you to clutch old Taillefer's millions when the hardest part of the business was done—let me tell you, for your personal safety, that if you do not treat Lucien like the brother you love, you are in our power, while we are not in yours. Silence and submission! or I shall join your game and upset the skittles. Lucien de Rubempre is under the protection of the strongest power of the day—the Church. Choose between life and death—Answer."
Rastignac felt giddy, like a man who has slept in a forest and wakes to see by his side a famishing lioness. He was frightened, and there was no one to see him; the boldest men yield to fear under such circumstances.
"No one but HE can know—or would dare——" he murmured to himself.
The mask clutched his hand tighter to prevent his finishing his sentence.
"Act as if I were he," he said.
Rastignac then acted like a millionaire on the highroad with a brigand's pistol at his head; he surrendered.
"My dear Count," said he to du Chatelet, to whom he presently returned, "if you care for your position in life, treat Lucien de Rubempre as a man whom you will one day see holding a place far above where you stand."
The mask made a imperceptible gesture of approbation, and went off in search of Lucien.
"My dear fellow, you have changed your opinion of him very suddenly," replied the Prefet with justifiable surprise.
"As suddenly as men change who belong to the centre and vote with the right," replied Rastignac to the Prefet-Depute, whose vote had for a few days failed to support the Ministry.
"Are there such things as opinions nowadays? There are only interests," observed des Lupeaulx, who had heard them. "What is the case in point?"
"The case of the Sieur de Rubempre, whom Rastignac is setting up as a person of consequence," said du Chatelet to the Secretary-General.
"My dear Count," replied des Lupeaulx very seriously, "Monsieur de Rubempre is a young man of the highest merit, and has such good interest at his back that I should be delighted to renew my acquaintance with him."
"There he is, rushing into the wasps' nest of the rakes of the day," said Rastignac.