Esther Happy/Section 2
The three speakers looked towards a corner where a group of recognized wits had gathered, men of more or less celebrity, and several men of fashion. These gentlemen made common stock of their jests, their remarks, and their scandal, trying to amuse themselves till something should amuse them. Among this strangely mingled party were some men with whom Lucien had had transactions, combining ostensibly kind offices with covert false dealing.
"Hallo! Lucien, my boy, why here we are patched up again—new stuffing and a new cover. Where have we come from? Have we mounted the high horse once more with little offerings from Florine's boudoir? Bravo, old chap!" and Blondet released Finot to put his arm affectionately around Lucien and press him to his heart.
Andoche Finot was the proprietor of a review on which Lucien had worked for almost nothing, and to which Blondet gave the benefit of his collaboration, of the wisdom of his suggestions and the depth of his views. Finot and Blondet embodied Bertrand and Raton, with this difference—that la Fontaine's cat at last showed that he knew himself to be duped, while Blondet, though he knew that he was being fleeced, still did all he could for Finot. This brilliant condottiere of the pen was, in fact, long to remain a slave. Finot hid a brutal strength of will under a heavy exterior, under polish of wit, as a laborer rubs his bread with garlic. He knew how to garner what he gleaned, ideas and crown-pieces alike, in the fields of the dissolute life led by men engaged in letters or in politics.
Blondet, for his sins, had placed his powers at the service of Finot's vices and idleness. Always at war with necessity, he was one of the race of poverty-stricken and superior men who can do everything for the fortune of others and nothing for their own, Aladdins who let other men borrow their lamp. These excellent advisers have a clear and penetrating judgment so long as it is not distracted by personal interest. In them it is the head and not the arm that acts. Hence the looseness of their morality, and hence the reproach heaped upon them by inferior minds. Blondet would share his purse with a comrade he had affronted the day before; he would dine, drink, and sleep with one whom he would demolish on the morrow. His amusing paradoxes excused everything. Accepting the whole world as a jest, he did not want to be taken seriously; young, beloved, almost famous and contented, he did not devote himself, like Finot, to acquiring the fortune an old man needs.
The most difficult form of courage, perhaps, is that which Lucien needed at this moment to get rid of Blondet as he had just got rid of Madame d'Espard and Chatelet. In him, unfortunately, the joys of vanity hindered the exercise of pride—the basis, beyond doubt, of many great things. His vanity had triumphed in the previous encounter; he had shown himself as a rich man, happy and scornful, to two persons who had scorned him when he was poor and wretched. But how could a poet, like an old diplomate, run the gauntlet with two self-styled friends, who had welcomed him in misery, under whose roof he had slept in the worst of his troubles? Finot, Blondet, and he had groveled together; they had wallowed in such orgies as consume something more than money. Like soldiers who find no market for their courage, Lucien had just done what many men do in Paris: he had still further compromised his character by shaking Finot's hand, and not rejecting Blondet's affection.
Every man who has dabbled, or still dabbles, in journalism is under the painful necessity of bowing to men he despises, of smiling at his dearest foe, of compounding the foulest meanness, of soiling his fingers to pay his aggressors in their own coin. He becomes used to seeing evil done, and passing it over; he begins by condoning it, and ends by committing it. In the long run the soul, constantly strained by shameful and perpetual compromise, sinks lower, the spring of noble thoughts grows rusty, the hinges of familiarity wear easy, and turn of their own accord. Alceste becomes Philinte, natures lose their firmness, talents are perverted, faith in great deeds evaporates. The man who yearned to be proud of his work wastes himself in rubbishy articles which his conscience regards, sooner or later, as so many evil actions. He started, like Lousteau or Vernou, to be a great writer; he finds himself a feeble scrivener. Hence it is impossible to honor too highly men whose character stands as high as their talent—men like d'Arthez, who know how to walk surefooted across the reefs of literary life.
Lucien could make no reply to Blondet's flattery; his wit had an irresistible charm for him, and he maintained the hold of the corrupter over his pupil; besides, he held a position in the world through his connection with the Comtesse de Montcornet.
"Has an uncle left you a fortune?" said Finot, laughing at him.
"Like you, I have marked some fools for cutting down," replied Lucien in the same tone.
"Then Monsieur has a review—a newspaper of his own?" Andoche Finot retorted, with the impertinent presumption of a chief to a subordinate.
"I have something better," replied Lucien, whose vanity, nettled by the assumed superiority of his editor, restored him to the sense of his new position.
"What is that, my dear boy?"
"I have a party."
"There is a Lucien party?" said Vernou, smiling
"Finot, the boy has left you in the lurch; I told you he would. Lucien is a clever fellow, and you never were respectful to him. You used him as a hack. Repent, blockhead!" said Blondet.
Blondet, as sharp as a needle, could detect more than one secret in Lucien's air and manner; while stroking him down, he contrived to tighten the curb. He meant to know the reasons of Lucien's return to Paris, his projects, and his means of living.
"On your knees to a superiority you can never attain to, albeit you are Finot!" he went on. "Admit this gentleman forthwith to be one of the great men to whom the future belongs; he is one of us! So witty and so handsome, can he fail to succeed by your quibuscumque viis? Here he stands, in his good Milan armor, his strong sword half unsheathed, and his pennon flying!—Bless me, Lucien, where did you steal that smart waistcoat? Love alone can find such stuff as that. Have you an address? At this moment I am anxious to know where my friends are domiciled; I don't know where to sleep. Finot has turned me out of doors for the night, under the vulgar pretext of 'a lady in the case.'"
"My boy," said Lucien, "I put into practice a motto by which you may secure a quiet life: Fuge, late, tace. I am off."
"But I am not off till you pay me a sacred debt—that little supper, you know, heh?" said Blondet, who was rather too much given to good cheer, and got himself treated when he was out of funds.
"What supper?" asked Lucien with a little stamp of impatience.
"You don't remember? In that I recognize my prosperous friend; he has lost his memory."
"He knows what he owes us; I will go bail for his good heart," said Finot, taking up Blondet's joke.
"Rastignac," said Blondet, taking the young dandy by the arm as he came up the room to the column where the so-called friends were standing. "There is a supper in the wind; you will join us—unless," he added gravely, turning to Lucien, "Monsieur persists in ignoring a debt of honor. He can."
"Monsieur de Rubempre is incapable of such a thing; I will answer for him," said Rastignac, who never dreamed of a practical joke.
"And there is Bixiou, he will come too," cried Blondet; "there is no fun without him. Without him champagne cloys my tongue, and I find everything insipid, even the pepper of satire."
"My friends," said Bixiou, "I see you have gathered round the wonder of the day. Our dear Lucien has revived the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Just as the gods used to turn into strange vegetables and other things to seduce the ladies, he has turned the Chardon (the Thistle) into a gentleman to bewitch—whom? Charles X.!—My dear boy," he went on, holding Lucien by his coat button, "a journalist who apes the fine gentleman deserves rough music. In their place," said the merciless jester, as he pointed to Finot and Vernou, "I should take you up in my society paper; you would bring in a hundred francs for ten columns of fun."
"Bixiou," said Blondet, "an Amphitryon is sacred for twenty-four hours before a feast and twelve hours after. Our illustrious friend is giving us a supper."
"What then!" cried Bixiou; "what is more imperative than the duty of saving a great name from oblivion, of endowing the indigent aristocracy with a man of talent? Lucien, you enjoy the esteem of the press of which you were a distinguished ornament, and we will give you our support.—Finot, a paragraph in the 'latest items'!—Blondet, a little butter on the fourth page of your paper!—We must advertise the appearance of one of the finest books of the age, l'Archer de Charles IX.! We will appeal to Dauriat to bring out as soon as possible les Marguerites, those divine sonnets by the French Petrarch! We must carry our friend through on the shield of stamped paper by which reputations are made and unmade."
"If you want a supper," said Lucien to Blondet, hoping to rid himself of this mob, which threatened to increase, "it seems to me that you need not work up hyperbole and parable to attack an old friend as if he were a booby. To-morrow night at Lointier's——" he cried, seeing a woman come by, whom he rushed to meet.
"Oh! oh! oh!" said Bixiou on three notes, with a mocking glance, and seeming to recognize the mask to whom Lucien addressed himself. "This needs confirmation."
He followed the handsome pair, got past them, examined them keenly, and came back, to the great satisfaction of all the envious crowd, who were eager to learn the source of Lucien's change of fortune.
"Friends," said Bixiou, "you have long known the goddess of the Sire de Rubempre's fortune: She is des Lupeaulx's former 'rat.'"
A form of dissipation, now forgotten, but still customary at the beginning of this century, was the keeping of "rats." The "rat"—a slang word that has become old-fashioned—was a girl of ten or twelve in the chorus of some theatre, more particularly at the opera, who was trained by young roues to vice and infamy. A "rat" was a sort of demon page, a tomboy who was forgiven a trick if it were but funny. The "rat" might take what she pleased; she was to be watched like a dangerous animal, and she brought an element of liveliness into life, like Scapin, Sganarelle, and Frontin in old-fashioned comedy. But a "rat" was too expensive; it made no return in honor, profit, or pleasure; the fashion of rats so completely went out, that in these days few people knew anything of this detail of fashionable life before the Restoration till certain writers took up the "rat" as a new subject.
"What! after having seen Coralie killed under him, Lucien means to rob us of La Torpille?" (the torpedo fish) said Blondet.
As he heard the name the brawny mask gave a significant start, which, though repressed, was understood by Rastignac.
"It is out of the question," replied Finot; "La Torpille has not a sou to give away; Nathan tells me she borrowed a thousand francs of Florine."
"Come, gentlemen, gentlemen!" said Rastignac, anxious to defend Lucien against so odious an imputation.
"Well," cried Vernou, "is Coralie's kept man likely to be so very particular?"
"Oh!" replied Bixiou, "those thousand francs prove to me that our friend Lucien lives with La Torpille——"
"What an irreparable loss to literature, science, art, and politics!" exclaimed Blondet. "La Torpille is the only common prostitute in whom I ever found the stuff for a superior courtesan; she has not been spoiled by education—she can neither read nor write, she would have understood us. We might have given to our era one of those magnificent Aspasias without which there can be no golden age. See how admirably Madame du Barry was suited to the eighteenth century, Ninon de l'Enclos to the seventeenth, Marion Delorme to the sixteenth, Imperia to the fifteenth, Flora to Republican Rome, which she made her heir, and which paid off the public debt with her fortune! What would Horace be without Lydia, Tibullus without Delia, Catullus without Lesbia, Propertius without Cynthia, Demetrius without Lamia, who is his glory at this day?"
"Blondet talking of Demetrius in the opera house seems to me rather too strong of the Debats," said Bixiou in his neighbor's ears.
"And where would the empire of the Caesars have been but for these queens?" Blondet went on; "Lais and Rhodope are Greece and Egypt. They all indeed are the poetry of the ages in which they lived. This poetry, which Napoleon lacked—for the Widow of his Great Army is a barrack jest, was not wanting to the Revolution; it had Madame Tallien! In these days there is certainly a throne to let in France which is for her who can fill it. We among us could make a queen. I should have given La Torpille an aunt, for her mother is too decidedly dead on the field of dishonor; du Tillet would have given her a mansion, Lousteau a carriage, Rastignac her footmen, des Lupeaulx a cook, Finot her hats"—Finot could not suppress a shrug at standing the point-blank fire of this epigram—"Vernou would have composed her advertisements, and Bixiou her repartees! The aristocracy would have come to enjoy themselves with our Ninon, where we would have got artists together, under pain of death by newspaper articles. Ninon the second would have been magnificently impertinent, overwhelming in luxury. She would have set up opinions. Some prohibited dramatic masterpiece should have been read in her drawing-room; it should have been written on purpose if necessary. She would not have been liberal; a courtesan is essentially monarchical. Oh, what a loss! She ought to have embraced her whole century, and she makes love with a little young man! Lucien will make a sort of hunting-dog of her."
"None of the female powers of whom you speak ever trudged the streets," said Finot, "and that pretty little 'rat' has rolled in the mire."
"Like a lily-seed in the soil," replied Vernou, "and she has improved in it and flowered. Hence her superiority. Must we not have known everything to be able to create the laughter and joy which are part of everything?"
"He is right," said Lousteau, who had hitherto listened without speaking; "La Torpille can laugh and make others laugh. That gift of all great writers and great actors is proper to those who have investigated every social deep. At eighteen that girl had already known the greatest wealth, the most squalid misery—men of every degree. She bears about her a sort of magic wand by which she lets loose the brutal appetites so vehemently suppressed in men who still have a heart while occupied with politics or science, literature or art. There is not in Paris another woman who can say to the beast as she does: 'Come out!' And the beast leaves his lair and wallows in excesses. She feeds you up to the chin, she helps you to drink and smoke. In short, this woman is the salt of which Rabelais writes, which, thrown on matter, animates it and elevates it to the marvelous realms of art; her robe displays unimagined splendor, her fingers drop gems as her lips shed smiles; she gives the spirit of the occasion to every little thing; her chatter twinkles with bright sayings, she has the secret of the quaintest onomatopoeia, full of color, and giving color; she——"
"You are wasting five francs' worth of copy," said Bixiou, interrupting Lousteau. "La Torpille is something far better than all that; you have all been in love with her more or less, not one of you can say that she ever was his mistress. She can always command you; you will never command her. You may force your way in and ask her to do you a service——"
"Oh, she is more generous than a brigand chief who knows his business, and more devoted than the best of school-fellows," said Blondet. "You may trust her with your purse or your secrets. But what made me choose her as queen is her Bourbon-like indifference for a fallen favorite."
"She, like her mother, is much too dear," said des Lupeaulx. "The handsome Dutch woman would have swallowed up the income of the Archbishop of Toledo; she ate two notaries out of house and home——"
"And kept Maxime de Trailles when he was a court page," said Bixiou.
"La Torpille is too dear, as Raphael was, or Careme, or Taglioni, or Lawrence, or Boule, or any artist of genius is too dear," said Blondet.
"Esther never looked so thoroughly a lady," said Rastignac, pointing to the masked figure to whom Lucien had given his arm. "I will bet on its being Madame de Serizy."
"Not a doubt of it," cried du Chatelet, "and Monsieur du Rubempre's fortune is accounted for."
"Ah, the Church knows how to choose its Levites; what a sweet ambassador's secretary he will make!" remarked des Lupeaulx.
"All the more so," Rastignac went on, "because Lucien is a really clever fellow. These gentlemen have had proof of it more than once," and he turned to Blondet, Finot, and Lousteau.
"Yes, the boy is cut out of the right stuff to get on," said Lousteau, who was dying of jealousy. "And particularly because he has what we call independent ideas . . ."
"It is you who trained him," said Vernou.
"Well," replied Bixiou, looking at des Lupeaulx, "I trust to the memory of Monsieur the Secretary-General and Master of Appeals—that mask is La Torpille, and I will stand a supper on it."
"I will hold the stakes," said du Chatelet, curious to know the truth.
"Come, des Lupeaulx," said Finot, "try to identify your rat's ears."
"There is no need for committing the crime of treason against a mask," replied Bixiou. "La Torpille and Lucien must pass us as they go up the room again, and I pledge myself to prove that it is she."
"So our friend Lucien has come above water once more," said Nathan, joining the group. "I thought he had gone back to Angoumois for the rest of his days. Has he discovered some secret to ruin the English?"
"He has done what you will not do in a hurry," retorted Rastignac; "he has paid up."
The burly mask nodded in confirmation.
"A man who has sown his wild oats at his age puts himself out of court. He has no pluck; he puts money in the funds," replied Nathan.
"Oh, that youngster will always be a fine gentleman, and will always have such lofty notions as will place him far above many men who think themselves his betters," replied Rastignac.
At this moment journalists, dandies, and idlers were all examining the charming subject of their bet as horse-dealers examine a horse for sale. These connoisseurs, grown old in familiarity with every form of Parisian depravity, all men of superior talent each his own way, equally corrupt, equally corrupting, all given over to unbridled ambition, accustomed to assume and to guess everything, had their eyes centered on a masked woman, a woman whom no one else could identify. They, and certain habitual frequenters of the opera balls, could alone recognize under the long shroud of the black domino, the hood and falling ruff which make the wearer unrecognizable, the rounded form, the individuality of figure and gait, the sway of the waist, the carriage of the head—the most intangible trifles to ordinary eyes, but to them the easiest to discern.
In spite of this shapeless wrapper they could watch the most appealing of dramas, that of a woman inspired by a genuine passion. Were she La Torpille, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, or Madame de Serizy, on the lowest or highest rung of the social ladder, this woman was an exquisite creature, a flash from happy dreams. These old young men, like these young old men, felt so keen an emotion, that they envied Lucien the splendid privilege of working such a metamorphosis of a woman into a goddess. The mask was there as though she had been alone with Lucien; for that woman the thousand other persons did not exist, nor the evil and dust-laden atmosphere; no, she moved under the celestial vault of love, as Raphael's Madonnas under their slender oval glory. She did not feel herself elbowed; the fire of her glance shot from the holes in her mask and sank into Lucien's eyes; the thrill of her frame seemed to answer to every movement of her companion. Whence comes this flame that radiates from a woman in love and distinguishes her above all others? Whence that sylph-like lightness which seems to negative the laws of gravitation? Is the soul become ambient? Has happiness a physical effluence?
The ingenuousness of a girl, the graces of a child were discernible under the domino. Though they walked apart, these two beings suggested the figures of Flora and Zephyr as we see them grouped by the cleverest sculptors; but they were beyond sculpture, the greatest of the arts; Lucien and his pretty domino were more like the angels busied with flowers or birds, which Gian Bellini has placed beneath the effigies of the Virgin Mother. Lucien and this girl belonged to the realm of fancy, which is as far above art as cause is above effect.
When the domino, forgetful of everything, was within a yard of the group, Bixiou exclaimed:
The unhappy girl turned her head quickly at hearing herself called, recognized the mischievous speaker, and bowed her head like a dying creature that has drawn its last breath.
A sharp laugh followed, and the group of men melted among the crowd like a knot of frightened field-rats whisking into their holes by the roadside. Rastignac alone went no further than was necessary, just to avoid making any show of shunning Lucien's flashing eye. He could thus note two phases of distress equally deep though unconfessed; first, the hapless Torpille, stricken as by a lightning stroke, and then the inscrutable mask, the only one of the group who had remained. Esther murmured a word in Lucien's ear just as her knees gave way, and Lucien, supporting her, led her away.
Rastignac watched the pretty pair, lost in meditation.
"How did she get her name of La Torpille?" asked a gloomy voice that struck to his vitals, for it was no longer disguised.
"He again—he has made his escape!" muttered Rastignac to himself.
"Be silent or I murder you," replied the mask, changing his voice. "I am satisfied with you, you have kept your word, and there is more than one arm ready to serve you. Henceforth be as silent as the grave; but, before that, answer my question."
"Well, the girl is such a witch that she could have magnetized the Emperor Napoleon; she could magnetize a man more difficult to influence—you yourself," replied Rastignac, and he turned to go.
"One moment," said the mask; "I will prove to you that you have never seen me anywhere."
The speaker took his mask off; for a moment Rastignac hesitated, recognizing nothing of the hideous being he had known formerly at Madame Vauquer's.
"The devil has enabled you to change in every particular, excepting your eyes, which it is impossible to forget," said he.
The iron hand gripped his arm to enjoin eternal secrecy.
At three in the morning des Lupeaulx and Finot found the elegant Rastignac on the same spot, leaning against the column where the terrible mask had left him. Rastignac had confessed to himself; he had been at once priest and pentient, culprit and judge. He allowed himself to be led away to breakfast, and reached home perfectly tipsy, but taciturn.