Esther Happy/Section 5

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Esther Happy by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 5

The next day a man, who by his dress might have been mistaken by the passers-by for a gendarme in disguise, was passing the Rue Taitbout, opposite a house, as if he were waiting for some one to come out; he walked with an agitated air. You will often see in Paris such vehement promenaders, real gendarmes watching a recalcitrant National Guardsman, bailiffs taking steps to effect an arrest, creditors planning a trick on the debtor who has shut himself in, lovers, or jealous and suspicious husbands, or friends doing sentry for a friend; but rarely do you meet a face portending such coarse and fierce thoughts as animated that of the gloomy and powerful man who paced to and fro under Mademoiselle Esther's windows with the brooding haste of a bear in its cage.

At noon a window was opened, and a maid-servant's hand was put out to push back the padded shutters. A few minutes later, Esther, in her dressing-gown, came to breathe the air, leaning on Lucien; any one who saw them might have taken them for the originals of some pretty English vignette. Esther was the first to recognize the basilisk eyes of the Spanish priest; and the poor creature, stricken as if she had been shot, gave a cry of horror.

"There is that terrible priest," said she, pointing him out to Lucien.

"He!" said Lucien, smiling, "he is no more a priest than you are."

"What then?" she said in alarm.

"Why, an old villain who believes in nothing but the devil," said Lucien.

This light thrown on the sham priest's secrets, if revealed to any one less devoted than Esther, might have ruined Lucien for ever.

As they went along the corridor from their bedroom to the dining-room, where their breakfast was served, the lovers met Carlos Herrera.

"What have you come here for?" said Lucien roughly.

"To bless you," replied the audacious scoundrel, stopping the pair and detaining them in the little drawing-room of the apartment. "Listen to me, my pretty dears. Amuse yourselves, be happy—well and good! Happiness at any price is my motto.—But you," he went on to Esther, "you whom I dragged from the mud, and have soaped down body and soul, you surely do not dream that you can stand in Lucien's way?—As for you, my boy," he went on after a pause, looking at Lucien, "you are no longer poet enough to allow yourself another Coralie. This is sober prose. What can be done with Esther's lover? Nothing. Can Esther become Madame de Rubempre? No.

"Well, my child," said he, laying his hand on Esther's, and making her shiver as if some serpent had wound itself round her, "the world must never know of your existence. Above all, the world must never know that a certain Mademoiselle Esther loves Lucien, and that Lucien is in love with her.—These rooms are your prison, my pigeon. If you wish to go out—and your health will require it—you must take exercise at night, at hours when you cannot be seen; for your youth and beauty, and the style you have acquired at the Convent, would at once be observed in Paris. The day when any one in the world, whoever it be," he added in an awful voice, seconded by an awful look, "learns that Lucien is your lover, or that you are his mistress, that day will be your last but one on earth. I have procured that boy a patent permitting him to bear the name and arms of his maternal ancestors. Still, this is not all; we have not yet recovered the title of Marquis; and to get it, he must marry a girl of good family, in whose favor the King will grant this distinction. Such an alliance will get Lucien on in the world and at Court. This boy, of whom I have made a man, will be first Secretary to an Embassy; later, he shall be Minister at some German Court, and God, or I—better still—helping him, he will take his seat some day on the bench reserved for peers——"

"Or on the bench reserved for——" Lucien began, interrupting the man.

"Hold your tongue!" cried Carlos, laying his broad hand on Lucien's mouth. "Would you tell such a secret to a woman?" he muttered in his ear.

"Esther! A woman!" cried the poet of Les Marguerites.

"Still inditing sonnets!" said the Spaniard. "Nonsense! Sooner or later all these angels relapse into being women, and every woman at moments is a mixture of a monkey and a child, two creatures who can kill us for fun.—Esther, my jewel," said he to the terrified girl, "I have secured as your waiting-maid a creature who is as much mine as if she were my daughter. For your cook, you shall have a mulatto woman, which gives style to a house. With Europe and Asie you can live here for a thousand-franc note a month like a queen—a stage queen. Europe has been a dressmaker, a milliner, and a stage super; Asie has cooked for an epicure Milord. These two women will serve you like two fairies."

Seeing Lucien go completely to the wall before this man, who was guilty at least of sacrilege and forgery, this woman, sanctified by her love, felt an awful fear in the depths of her heart. She made no reply, but dragged Lucien into her room, and asked him:

"Is he the devil?"

"He is far worse to me!" he vehemently replied. "But if you love me, try to imitate that man's devotion to me, and obey him on pain of death!——"

"Of death!" she exclaimed, more frightened than ever.

"Of death," repeated Lucien. "Alas! my darling, no death could be compared with that which would befall me if——"

Esther turned pale at his words, and felt herself fainting.

"Well, well," cried the sacrilegious forger, "have you not yet spelt out your daisy-petals?"

Esther and Lucien came out, and the poor girl, not daring to look at the mysterious man, said:

"You shall be obeyed as God is obeyed, monsieur."

"Good," said he. "You may be very happy for a time, and you will need only nightgowns and wrappers—that will be very economical."

The two lovers went on towards the dining-room, but Lucien's patron signed to the pretty pair to stop. And they stopped.

"I have just been talking of your servants, my child," said he to Esther. "I must introduce them to you."

The Spaniard rang twice. The women he had called Europe and Asie came in, and it was at once easy to see the reason of these names.

Asie, who looked as if she might have been born in the Island of Java, showed a face to scare the eye, as flat as a board, with the copper complexion peculiar to Malays, with a nose that looked as if it had been driven inwards by some violent pressure. The strange conformation of the maxillary bones gave the lower part of this face a resemblance to that of the larger species of apes. The brow, though sloping, was not deficient in intelligence produced by habits of cunning. Two fierce little eyes had the calm fixity of a tiger's, but they never looked you straight in the face. Asie seemed afraid lest she might terrify people. Her lips, a dull blue, were parted over prominent teeth of dazzling whiteness, but grown across. The leading expression of this animal countenance was one of meanness. Her black hair, straight and greasy-looking like her skin, lay in two shining bands, forming an edge to a very handsome silk handkerchief. Her ears were remarkably pretty, and graced with two large dark pearls. Small, short, and squat, Asie bore a likeness to the grotesque figures the Chinese love to paint on screens, or, more exactly, to the Hindoo idols which seem to be imitated from some non-existent type, found, nevertheless, now and again by travelers. Esther shuddered as she looked at this monstrosity, dressed out in a white apron over a stuff gown.

"Asie," said the Spaniard, to whom the woman looked up with a gesture that can only be compared to that of a dog to its master, "this is your mistress."

And he pointed to Esther in her wrapper.

Asie looked at the young fairy with an almost distressful expression; but at the same moment a flash, half hidden between her thick, short eyelashes, shot like an incendiary spark at Lucien, who, in a magnificent dressing-gown thrown open over a fine Holland linen shirt and red trousers, with a fez on his head, beneath which his fair hair fell in thick curls, presented a godlike appearance.

Italian genius could invent the tale of Othello; English genius could put it on the stage; but Nature alone reserves the power of throwing into a single glance an expression of jealousy grander and more complete than England and Italy together could imagine. This look, seen by Esther, made her clutch the Spaniard by the arm, setting her nails in it as a cat sets its claws to save itself from falling into a gulf of which it cannot see the bottom.

The Spaniard spoke a few words, in some unfamiliar tongue, to the Asiatic monster, who crept on her knees to Esther's feet and kissed them.

"She is not merely a good cook," said Herrera to Esther; "she is a past-master, and might make Careme mad with jealousy. Asie can do everything by way of cooking. She will turn you out a simple dish of beans that will make you wonder whether the angels have not come down to add some herb from heaven. She will go to market herself every morning, and fight like the devil she is to get things at the lowest prices; she will tire out curiosity by silence.

"You are to be supposed to have been in India, and Asie will help you to give effect to this fiction, for she is one of those Parisians who are born to be of any nationality they please. But I do not advise that you should give yourself out to be a foreigner.—Europe, what do you say?"

Europe was a perfect contrast to Asie, for she was the smartest waiting-maid that Monrose could have hoped to see as her rival on the stage. Slight, with a scatter-brain manner, a face like a weasel, and a sharp nose, Europe's features offered to the observer a countenance worn by the corruption of Paris life, the unhealthy complexion of a girl fed on raw apples, lymphatic but sinewy, soft but tenacious. One little foot was set forward, her hands were in her apron-pockets, and she fidgeted incessantly without moving, from sheer excess of liveliness. Grisette and stage super, in spite of her youth she must have tried many trades. As full of evil as a dozen Madelonnettes put together, she might have robbed her parents, and sat on the bench of a police-court.

Asie was terrifying, but you knew her thoroughly from the first; she descended in a straight line from Locusta; while Europe filled you with uneasiness, which could not fail to increase the more you had to do with her; her corruption seemed boundless. You felt that she could set the devils by the ears.

"Madame might say she had come from Valenciennes," said Europe in a precise little voice. "I was born there—Perhaps monsieur," she added to Lucien in a pedantic tone, "will be good enough to say what name he proposes to give to madame?"

"Madame van Bogseck," the Spaniard put in, reversing Esther's name. "Madame is a Jewess, a native of Holland, the widow of a merchant, and suffering from a liver-complaint contracted in Java. No great fortune—not to excite curiosity."

"Enough to live on—six thousand francs a year; and we shall complain of her stinginess?" said Europe.

"That is the thing," said the Spaniard, with a bow. "You limbs of Satan!" he went on, catching Asie and Europe exchanging a glance that displeased him, "remember what I have told you. You are serving a queen; you owe her as much respect as to a queen; you are to cherish her as you would cherish a revenge, and be as devoted to her as to me. Neither the door-porter, nor the neighbors, nor the other inhabitants of the house—in short, not a soul on earth is to know what goes on here. It is your business to balk curiosity if any should be roused.—And madame," he went on laying his broad hairy hand on Esther's arm, "madame must not commit the smallest imprudence; you must prevent it in case of need, but always with perfect respect.

"You, Europe, are to go out for madame in anything that concerns her dress, and you must do her sewing from motives of economy. Finally, nobody, not even the most insignificant creature, is ever to set foot in this apartment. You two, between you, must do all there is to be done.

"And you, my beauty," he went on, speaking to Esther, "when you want to go out in your carriage by night, you can tell Europe; she will know where to find your men, for you will have a servant in livery, of my choosing, like those two slaves."

Esther and Lucien had not a word ready. They listened to the Spaniard, and looked at the two precious specimens to whom he gave his orders. What was the secret hold to which he owed the submission and servitude that were written on these two faces—one mischievously recalcitrant, the other so malignantly cruel?

He read the thoughts of Lucien and Esther, who seemed paralyzed, as Paul and Virginia might have been at the sight of two dreadful snakes, and he said in a good-natured undertone:

"You can trust them as you can me; keep no secrets from them; that will flatter them.—Go to your work, my little Asie," he added to the cook.—"And you, my girl, lay another place," he said to Europe; "the children cannot do less than ask papa to breakfast."

When the two women had shut the door, and the Spaniard could hear Europe moving to and fro, he turned to Lucien and Esther, and opening a wide palm, he said:

"I hold them in the hollow of my hand."

The words and gesture made his hearers shudder.

"Where did you pick them up?" cried Lucien.

"What the devil! I did not look for them at the foot of the throne!" replied the man. "Europe has risen from the mire, and is afraid of sinking into it again. Threaten them with Monsieur Abbe when they do not please you, and you will see them quake like mice when the cat is mentioned. I am used to taming wild beasts," he added with a smile.

"You strike me as being a demon," said Esther, clinging closer to Lucien.

"My child, I tried to win you to heaven; but a repentant Magdalen is always a practical joke on the Church. If ever there were one, she would relapse into the courtesan in Paradise. You have gained this much: you are forgotten, and have acquired the manners of a lady, for you learned in the convent what you never could have learned in the ranks of infamy in which you were living.—You owe me nothing," said he, observing a beautiful look of gratitude on Esther's face. "I did it all for him," and he pointed to Lucien. "You are, you will always be, you will die a prostitute; for in spite of the delightful theories of cattle-breeders, you can never, here below, become anything but what you are. The man who feels bumps is right. You have the bump of love."

The Spaniard, it will be seen, was a fatalist, like Napoleon, Mahomet, and many other great politicians. It is a strange thing that most men of action have a tendency to fatalism, just as most great thinkers have a tendency to believe in Providence.

"What I am, I do not know," said Esther with angelic sweetness; "but I love Lucien, and shall die worshiping him."

"Come to breakfast," said the Spaniard sharply. "And pray to God that Lucien may not marry too soon, for then you would never see him again."

"His marriage would be my death," said she.

She allowed the sham priest to lead the way, that she might stand on tiptoe and whisper to Lucien without being seen.

"Is it your wish," said she, "that I should remain in the power of this man who sets two hyenas to guard me?"

Lucien bowed his head.

The poor child swallowed down her grief and affected gladness, but she felt cruelly oppressed. It needed more than a year of constant and devoted care before she was accustomed to these two dreadful creatures whom Carlos Herrera called the two watch-dogs.