The Old Maid (Balzac)/Chapter VII
The news of Mademoiselle Cormon's choice stabbed poor Athanase Granson to the heart; but he showed no outward sign of the terrible agitation within him. When he first heard of the marriage he was at the house of the chief-justice, du Ronceret, where his mother was playing boston. Madame Granson looked at her son in a mirror, and thought him pale; but he had been so all day, for a vague rumor of the matter had already reached him.
Mademoiselle Cormon was the card on which Athanase had staked his life; and the cold presentiment of a catastrophe was already upon him. When the soul and the imagination have magnified a misfortune and made it too heavy for the shoulders and the brain to bear; when a hope long cherished, the realization of which would pacify the vulture feeding on the heart, is balked, and the man has faith neither in himself, despite his powers, nor in the future, despite of the Divine power,—then that man is lost. Athanase was a fruit of the Imperial system of education. Fatality, the Emperor's religion, had filtered down from the throne to the lowest ranks of the army and the benches of the lyceums. Athanase sat still, with his eyes fixed on Madame du Ronceret's cards, in a stupor that might so well pass for indifference that Madame Granson herself was deceived about his feelings. This apparent unconcern explained her son's refusal to make a sacrifice for this marriage of his liberal opinions,—the term "liberal" having lately been created for the Emperor Alexander by, I think, Madame de Stael, through the lips of Benjamin Constant.
After that fatal evening the young man took to rambling among the picturesque regions of the Sarthe, the banks of which are much frequented by sketchers who come to Alencon for points of view. Windmills are there, and the river is gay in the meadows. The shores of the Sarthe are bordered with beautiful trees, well grouped. Though the landscape is flat, it is not without those modest graces which distinguish France, where the eye is never wearied by the brilliancy of Oriental skies, nor saddened by constant fog. The place is solitary. In the provinces no one pays much attention to a fine view, either because provincials are blases on the beauty around them, or because they have no poesy in their souls. If there exists in the provinces a mall, a promenade, a vantage-ground from which a fine view can be obtained, that is the point to which no one goes. Athanase was fond of this solitude, enlivened by the sparkling water, where the fields were the first to green under the earliest smiling of the springtide sun. Those persons who saw him sitting beneath a poplar, and who noticed the vacant eye which he turned to them, would say to Madame Granson:—
"Something is the matter with your son."
"I know what it is," the mother would reply; hinting that he was meditating over some great work.
Athanase no longer took part in politics: he ceased to have opinions; but he appeared at times quite gay,—gay with the satire of those who think to insult a whole world with their own individual scorn. This young man, outside of all the ideas and all the pleasures of the provinces, interested few persons; he was not even an object of curiosity. If persons spoke of him to his mother, it was for her sake, not his. There was not a single soul in Alencon that sympathized with his; not a woman, not a friend came near to dry his tears; they dropped into the Sarthe. If the gorgeous Suzanne had happened that way, how many young miseries might have been born of the meeting! for the two would surely have loved each other.
She did come, however. Suzanne's ambition was early excited by the tale of a strange adventure which had happened at the tavern of the More,—a tale which had taken possession of her childish brain. A Parisian woman, beautiful as the angels, was sent by Fouche to entangle the Marquis de Montauran, otherwise called "The Gars," in a love-affair (see "The Chouans"). She met him at the tavern of the More on his return from an expedition to Mortagne; she cajoled him, made him love her, and then betrayed him. That fantastic power—the power of beauty over mankind; in fact, the whole story of Marie de Verneuil and the Gars—dazzled Suzanne; she longed to grow up in order to play upon men. Some months after her hasty departure she passed through her native town with an artist on his way to Brittany. She wanted to see Fougeres, where the adventure of the Marquis de Montauran culminated, and to stand upon the scene of that picturesque war, the tragedies of which, still so little known, had filled her childish mind. Besides this, she had a fancy to pass through Alencon so elegantly equipped that no one could recognize her; to put her mother above the reach of necessity, and also to send to poor Athanase, in a delicate manner, a sum of money,—which in our age is to genius what in the middle ages was the charger and the coat of mail that Rebecca conveyed to Ivanhoe.
One month passed away in the strangest uncertainties respecting the marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon. A party of unbelievers denied the marriage altogether; the believers, on the other hand, affirmed it. At the end of two weeks, the faction of unbelief received a vigorous blow in the sale of du Bousquier's house to the Marquis de Troisville, who only wanted a simple establishment in Alencon, intending to go to Paris after the death of the Princess Scherbellof; he proposed to await that inheritance in retirement, and then to reconstitute his estates. This seemed positive. The unbelievers, however, were not crushed. They declared that du Bousquier, married or not, had made an excellent sale, for the house had only cost him twenty-seven thousand francs. The believers were depressed by this practical observation of the incredulous. Choisnel, Mademoiselle Cormon's notary, asserted the latter, had heard nothing about the marriage contract; but the believers, still firm in their faith, carried off, on the twentieth day, a signal victory: Monsieur Lepressoir, the notary of the liberals, went to Mademoiselle Cormon's house, and the contract was signed.
This was the first of the numerous sacrifices which Mademoiselle Cormon was destined to make to her husband. Du Bousquier bore the deepest hatred to Choisnel; to him he owed the refusal of the hand of Mademoiselle Armande,—a refusal which, as he believed, had influenced that of Mademoiselle Cormon. This circumstance alone made the marriage drag along. Mademoiselle received several anonymous letters. She learned, to her great astonishment, that Suzanne was as truly a virgin as herself so far as du Bousquier was concerned, for that seducer with the false toupet could never be the hero of any such adventure. Mademoiselle Cormon disdained anonymous letters; but she wrote to Suzanne herself, on the ground of enlightening the Maternity Society. Suzanne, who had no doubt heard of du Bousquier's proposed marriage, acknowledged her trick, sent a thousand francs to the society, and did all the harm she could to the old purveyor. Mademoiselle Cormon convoked the Maternity Society, which held a special meeting at which it was voted that the association would not in future assist any misfortunes about to happen, but solely those that had happened.
In spite of all these various events which kept the town in the choicest gossip, the banns were published in the churches and at the mayor's office. Athanase prepared the deeds. As a matter of propriety and public decency, the bride retired to Prebaudet, where du Bousquier, bearing sumptuous and horrible bouquets, betook himself every morning, returning home for dinner.
At last, on a dull and rainy morning in June, the marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon and the Sieur du Bousquier took place at noon in the parish church of Alencon, in sight of the whole town. The bridal pair went from their own house to the mayor's office, and from the mayor's office to the church in an open caleche, a magnificent vehicle for Alencon, which du Bousquier had sent for secretly to Paris. The loss of the old carriole was a species of calamity in the eyes of the community. The harness-maker of the Porte de Seez bemoaned it, for he lost the fifty francs a year which it cost in repairs. Alencon saw with alarm the possibility of luxury being thus introduced into the town. Every one feared a rise in the price of rents and provisions, and a coming invasion of Parisian furniture. Some persons were sufficiently pricked by curiosity to give ten sous to Jacquelin to allow them a close inspection of the vehicle which threatened to upset the whole economy of the region. A pair of horses, bought in Normandie, were also most alarming.
"If we bought our own horses," said the Ronceret circle, "we couldn't sell them to those who come to buy."
Stupid as it was, this reasoning seemed sound; for surely such a course would prevent the region from grasping the money of foreigners. In the eyes of the provinces wealth consisted less in the rapid turning over of money than in sterile accumulation. It may be mentioned here that Penelope succumbed to a pleurisy which she acquired about six weeks before the marriage; nothing could save her.
Madame Granson, Mariette, Madame du Coudrai, Madame du Ronceret, and through them the whole town, remarked that Madame du Bousquier entered the church with her left foot,—an omen all the more dreadful because the term Left was beginning to acquire a political meaning. The priest whose duty it was to read the opening formula opened his book by chance at the De Profundis. Thus the marriage was accompanied by circumstances so fateful, so alarming, so annihilating that no one dared to augur well of it. Matters, in fact, went from bad to worse. There was no wedding party; the married pair departed immediately for Prebaudet. Parisian customs, said the community, were about to triumph over time-honored provincial ways.
The marriage of Jacquelin and Josette now took place: it was gay; and they were the only two persons in Alencon who refuted the sinister prophecies relating to the marriage of their mistress.
Du Bousquier determined to use the proceeds of the sale of his late residence in restoring and modernizing the hotel Cormon. He decided to remain through two seasons at Prebaudet, and took the Abbe de Sponde with them. This news spread terror through the town, where every individual felt that du Bousquier was about to drag the community into the fatal path of "comfort." This fear increased when the inhabitants of Alencon saw the bridegroom driving in from Prebaudet one morning to inspect his works, in a fine tilbury drawn by a new horse, having Rene at his side in livery. The first act of his administration had been to place his wife's savings on the Grand-Livre, which was then quoted at 67 fr. 50 cent. In the space of one year, during which he played constantly for a rise, he made himself a personal fortune almost as considerable as that of his wife.
But all these foreboding prophecies, these perturbing innovations, were superseded and surpassed by an event connected with this marriage which gave a still more fatal aspect to it.
On the very evening of the ceremony, Athanase and his mother were sitting, after their dinner, over a little fire of fagots, which the servant lighted usually at dessert.
"Well, we will go this evening to the du Roncerets', inasmuch as we have lost Mademoiselle Cormon," said Madame Granson. "Heavens! how shall I ever accustom myself to call her Madame du Bousquier! that name burns my lips."
Athanase looked at his mother with a constrained and melancholy air; he could not smile; but he seemed to wish to welcome that naive sentiment which soothed his wound, though it could not cure his anguish.
"Mamma," he said, in the voice of his childhood, so tender was it, and using the name he had abandoned for several years,—"my dear mamma, do not let us go out just yet; it is so pleasant here before the fire."
The mother heard, without comprehending, that supreme prayer of a mortal sorrow.
"Yes, let us stay, my child," she said. "I like much better to talk with you and listen to your projects than to play at boston and lose my money."
"You are so handsome to-night I love to look at you. Besides, I am in a current of ideas which harmonize with this poor little salon where we have suffered so much."
"And where we shall still suffer, my poor Athanase, until your works succeed. For myself, I am trained to poverty; but you, my treasure! to see your youth go by without a joy! nothing but toil for my poor boy in life! That thought is like an illness to a mother; it tortures me at night; it wakes me in the morning. O God! what have I done? for what crime dost thou punish me thus?"
She left her sofa, took a little chair, and sat close to Athanase, so as to lay her head on the bosom of her child. There is always the grace of love in true motherhood. Athanase kissed her on the eyes, on her gray hair, on her forehead, with the sacred desire of laying his soul wherever he applied his lips.
"I shall never succeed," he said, trying to deceive his mother as to the fatal resolution he was revolving in his mind.
"Pooh! don't get discouraged. As you often say, thought can do all things. With ten bottles of ink, ten reams of paper, and his powerful will, Luther upset all Europe. Well, you'll make yourself famous; you will do good things by the same means which he used to do evil things. Haven't you said so yourself? For my part, I listen to you; I understand you a great deal more than you think I do,—for I still bear you in my bosom, and your every thought still stirs me as your slightest motion did in other days."
"I shall never succeed here, mamma; and I don't want you to witness the sight of my struggles, my misery, my anguish. Oh, mother, let me leave Alencon! I want to suffer away from you."
"And I wish to be at your side," replied his mother, proudly. "Suffer without your mother!—that poor mother who would be your servant if necessary; who will efface herself rather than injure you; your mother, who will never shame you. No, no, Athanase; we must not part."
Athanase clung to his mother with the ardor of a dying man who clings to life.
"But I wish it, nevertheless. If not, you will lose me; this double grief, yours and mine, is killing me. You would rather I lived than died?"
Madame Granson looked at her son with a haggard eye.
"So this is what you have been brooding?" she said. "They told me right. Do you really mean to go?"
"You will not go without telling me; without warning me? You must have an outfit and money. I have some louis sewn into my petticoat; I shall give them to you."
"That's all I wanted to tell you," he said. "Now I'll take you to the du Roncerets'. Come."
The mother and the son went out. Athanase left his mother at the door of the house where she intended to pass the evening. He looked long at the light which came through the shutters; he clung closely to the wall, and a frenzied joy came over him when he presently heard his mother say, "He has great independence of heart."
"Poor mother! I have deceived her," he cried, as he made his way to the Sarthe.
He reached the noble poplar beneath which he had meditated so much for the last forty days, and where he had placed two heavy stones on which he now sat down. He contemplated that beautiful nature lighted by the moon; he reviewed once more the glorious future he had longed for; he passed through towns that were stirred by his name; he heard the applauding crowds; he breathed the incense of his fame; he adored that life long dreamed of; radiant, he sprang to radiant triumphs; he raised his stature; he evoked his illusions to bid them farewell in a last Olympic feast. The magic had been potent for a moment; but now it vanished forever. In that awful hour he clung to the beautiful tree to which, as to a friend, he had attached himself; then he put the two stones into the pockets of his overcoat, which he buttoned across his breast. He had come intentionally without a hat. He now went to the deep pool he had long selected, and glided into it resolutely, trying to make as little noise as possible, and, in fact, making scarcely any.
When, at half-past nine o'clock, Madame Granson returned home, her servant said nothing of Athanase, but gave her a letter. She opened it and read these few words,—
"My good mother, I have departed; don't be angry with me."
"A pretty trick he has played me!" she thought. "And his linen! and the money! Well, he will write to me, and then I'll follow him. These poor children think they are so much cleverer than their fathers and mothers."
And she went to bed in peace.
During the preceding morning the Sarthe had risen to a height foreseen by the fisherman. These sudden rises of muddy water brought eels from their various runlets. It so happened that a fisherman had spread his net at the very place where poor Athanase had flung himself, believing that no one would ever find him. About six o'clock in the morning the man drew in his net, and with it the young body. The few friends of the poor mother took every precaution in preparing her to receive the dreadful remains. The news of this suicide made, as may well be supposed, a great excitement in Alencon. The poor young man of genius had no protector the night before, but on the morrow of his death a thousand voices cried aloud, "I would have helped him." It is so easy and convenient to be charitable gratis!
The suicide was explained by the Chevalier de Valois. He revealed, in a spirit of revenge, the artless, sincere, and genuine love of Athanase for Mademoiselle Cormon. Madame Granson, enlightened by the chevalier, remembered a thousand little circumstances which confirmed the chevalier's statement. The story then became touching, and many women wept over it. Madame Granson's grief was silent, concentrated, and little understood. There are two forms of mourning for mothers. Often the world can enter fully into the nature of their loss: their son, admired, appreciated, young, perhaps handsome, with a noble path before him, leading to fortune, possibly to fame, excites universal regret; society joins in the grief, and alleviates while it magnifies it. But there is another sorrow of mothers who alone know what their child was really; who alone have received his smiles and observed the treasures of a life too soon cut short. That sorrow hides its woe, the blackness of which surpasses all other mourning; it cannot be described; happily there are but few women whose heart-strings are thus severed.
Before Madame du Bousquier returned to town, Madame du Ronceret, one of her good friends, had driven out to Prebaudet to fling this corpse upon the roses of her joy, to show her the love she had ignored, and sweetly shed a thousand drops of wormwood into the honey of her bridal month. As Madame du Bousquier drove back to Alencon, she chanced to meet Madame Granson at the corner of the rue Val-Noble. The glance of the mother, dying of her grief, struck to the heart of the poor woman. A thousand maledictions, a thousand flaming reproaches, were in that look: Madame du Bousquier was horror-struck; that glance predicted and called down evil upon her head.
The evening after the catastrophe, Madame Granson, one of the persons most opposed to the rector of the town, and who had hitherto supported the minister of Saint-Leonard, began to tremble as she thought of the inflexible Catholic doctrines professed by her own party. After placing her son's body in its shroud with her own hands, thinking of the mother of the Saviour, she went, with a soul convulsed by anguish, to the house of the hated rector. There she found the modest priest in an outer room, engaged in putting away the flax and yarns with which he supplied poor women, in order that they might never be wholly out of work,—a form of charity which saved many who were incapable of begging from actual penury. The rector left his yarns and hastened to take Madame Granson into his dining-room, where the wretched mother noticed, as she looked at his supper, the frugal method of his own living.
"Monsieur l'abbe," she said, "I have come to implore you—" She burst into tears, unable to continue.
"I know what brings you," replied the saintly man. "I must trust to you, madame, and to your relation, Madame du Bousquier, to pacify Monseigneur the Bishop at Seez. Yes, I will pray for your unhappy child; yes, I will say the masses. But we must avoid all scandal, and give no opportunity for evil-judging persons to assemble in the church. I alone, without other clergy, at night—"
"Yes, yes, as you think best; if only he may lie in consecrated ground," said the poor mother, taking the priest's hand and kissing it.
Toward midnight a coffin was clandestinely borne to the parish church by four young men, comrades whom Athanase had liked the best. A few friends of Madame Granson, women dressed in black, and veiled, were present; and half a dozen other young men who had been somewhat intimate with this lost genius. Four torches flickered on the coffin, which was covered with crape. The rector, assisted by one discreet choirboy, said the mortuary mass. Then the body of the suicide was noiselessly carried to a corner of the cemetery, where a black wooden cross, without inscription, was all that indicated its place hereafter to the mother. Athanase lived and died in shadow. No voice was raised to blame the rector; the bishop kept silence. The piety of the mother redeemed the impiety of the son's last act.
Some months later, the poor woman, half beside herself with grief, and moved by one of those inexplicable thirsts which misery feels to steep its lips in the bitter chalice, determined to see the spot where her son was drowned. Her instinct may have told her that thoughts of his could be recovered beneath that poplar; perhaps, too, she desired to see what his eyes had seen for the last time. Some mothers would die of the sight; others give themselves up to it in saintly adoration. Patient anatomists of human nature cannot too often enunciate the truths before which all educations, laws, and philosophical systems must give way. Let us repeat continually: it is absurd to force sentiments into one formula: appearing as they do, in each individual man, they combine with the elements that form his nature and take his own physiognomy.
Madame Granson, as she stood on that fatal spot, saw a woman approach it, who exclaimed,—
"Was it here?"
That woman wept as the mother wept. It was Suzanne. Arriving that morning at the hotel du More, she had been told of the catastrophe. If poor Athanase had been living, she meant to do as many noble souls, who are moneyless, dream of doing, and as the rich never think of doing,—she meant to have sent him several thousand francs, writing up the envelope the words: "Money due to your father from a comrade who makes restitution to you." This tender scheme had been arranged by Suzanne during her journey.
The courtesan caught sight of Madame Granson and moved rapidly away, whispering as she passed her, "I loved him!"
Suzanne, faithful to her nature, did not leave Alencon on this occasion without changing the orange-blossoms of the bride to rue. She was the first to declare that Madame du Bousquier would never be anything but Mademoiselle Cormon. With one stab of her tongue she revenged poor Athanase and her dear chevalier.
Alencon now witnessed a suicide that was slower and quite differently pitiful from that of poor Athanase, who was quickly forgotten by society, which always makes haste to forget its dead. The poor Chevalier de Valois died in life; his suicide was a daily occurrence for fourteen years. Three months after the du Bousquier marriage society remarked, not without astonishment, that the linen of the chevalier was frayed and rusty, that his hair was irregularly combed and brushed. With a frowsy head the Chevalier de Valois could no longer be said to exist! A few of his ivory teeth deserted, though the keenest observers of human life were unable to discover to what body they had hitherto belonged, whether to a foreign legion or whether they were indigenous, vegetable or animal; whether age had pulled them from the chevalier's mouth, or whether they were left forgotten in the drawer of his dressing-table. The cravat was crooked, indifferent to elegance. The negroes' heads grew pale with dust and grease. The wrinkles of the face were blackened and puckered; the skin became parchment. The nails, neglected, were often seen, alas! with a black velvet edging. The waistcoat was tracked and stained with droppings which spread upon its surface like autumn leaves. The cotton in the ears was seldom changed. Sadness reigned upon that brow, and slipped its yellowing tints into the depths of each furrow. In short, the ruins, hitherto so cleverly hidden, now showed through the cracks and crevices of that fine edifice, and proved the power of the soul over the body; for the fair and dainty man, the cavalier, the young blood, died when hope deserted him. Until then the nose of the chevalier was ever delicate and nice; never had a damp black blotch, nor an amber drop fall from it; but now that nose, smeared with tobacco around the nostrils, degraded by the driblets which took advantage of the natural gutter placed between itself and the upper lip,—that nose, which no longer cared to seem agreeable, revealed the infinite pains which the chevalier had formerly taken with his person, and made observers comprehend, by the extent of its degradation, the greatness and persistence of the man's designs upon Mademoiselle Cormon.
Alas, too, the anecdotes went the way of the teeth; the clever sayings grew rare. The appetite, however, remained; the old nobleman saved nothing but his stomach from the wreck of his hopes; though he languidly prepared his pinches of snuff, he ate alarming dinners. Perhaps you will more fully understand the disaster that this marriage was to the mind and heart of the chevalier when you learn that his intercourse with the Princess Goritza became less frequent.
One day he appeared in Mademoiselle Armande's salon with the calf of his leg on the shin-bone. This bankruptcy of the graces was, I do assure you, terrible, and struck all Alencon with horror. The late young man had become an old one; this human being, who, by the breaking-down of his spirit, had passed at once from fifty to ninety years of age, frightened society. Besides, his secret was betrayed; he had waited and watched for Mademoiselle Cormon; he had, like a patient hunter, adjusted his aim for ten whole years, and finally had missed the game! In short, the impotent Republic had won the day from Valiant Chivalry, and that, too, under the Restoration! Form triumphed; mind was vanquished by matter, diplomacy by insurrection. And, O final blow! a mortified grisette revealed the secret of the chevalier's mornings, and he now passed for a libertine. The liberals cast at his door all the foundlings hitherto attributed to du Bousquier. But the faubourg Saint-Germain of Alencon accepted them proudly: it even said, "That poor chevalier, what else could he do?" The faubourg pitied him, gathered him closer to their circle, and brought back a few rare smiles to his face; but frightful enmity was piled upon the head of du Bousquier. Eleven persons deserted the Cormon salon, and passed to that of the d'Esgrignons.
The old maid's marriage had a signal effect in defining the two parties in Alencon. The salon d'Esgrignon represented the upper aristocracy (the returning Troisvilles attached themselves to it); the Cormon salon represented, under the clever influence of du Bousquier, that fatal class of opinions which, without being truly liberal or resolutely royalist, gave birth to the 221 on that famous day when the struggle openly began between the most august, grandest, and only true power, royalty, and the most false, most changeful, most oppressive of all powers,—the power called parliamentary, which elective assemblies exercise. The salon du Ronceret, secretly allied to the Cormon salon, was boldly liberal.
The Abbe de Sponde, after his return from Prebaudet, bore many and continual sufferings, which he kept within his breast, saying no word of them to his niece. But to Mademoiselle Armande he opened his heart, admitting that, folly for folly, he would much have preferred the Chevalier de Valois to Monsieur du Bousquier. Never would the dear chevalier have had the bad taste to contradict and oppose a poor old man who had but a few days more to live; du Bousquier had destroyed everything in the good old home. The abbe said, with scanty tears moistening his aged eyes,—
"Mademoiselle, I haven't even the little grove where I have walked for fifty years. My beloved lindens are all cut down! At the moment of my death the Republic appears to me more than ever under the form of a horrible destruction of the Home."
"You must pardon your niece," said the Chevalier de Valois. "Republican ideas are the first error of youth which seeks for liberty; later it finds it the worst of despotisms,—that of an impotent canaille. Your poor niece is punished where she sinned."
"What will become of me in a house where naked women are painted on the walls?" said the poor abbe. "Where shall I find other lindens beneath which to read my breviary?"
Like Kant, who was unable to collect his thoughts after the fir-tree at which he was accustomed to gaze while meditating was cut down, so the poor abbe could never attain the ardor of his former prayers while walking up and down the shadeless paths. Du Bousquier had planted an English garden.
"It was best," said Madame du Bousquier, without thinking so; but the Abbe Couterier had authorized her to commit many wrongs to please her husband.
These restorations destroyed all the venerable dignity, cordiality, and patriarchal air of the old house. Like the Chevalier de Valois, whose personal neglect might be called an abdication, the bourgeois dignity of the Cormon salon no longer existed when it was turned to white and gold, with mahogany ottomans covered in blue satin. The dining-room, adorned in modern taste, was colder in tone than it used to be, and the dinners were eaten with less appetite than formerly. Monsieur du Coudrai declared that he felt his puns stick in his throat as he glanced at the figures painted on the walls, which looked him out of countenance. Externally, the house was still provincial; but internally everything revealed the purveyor of the Directory and the bad taste of the money-changer,—for instance, columns in stucco, glass doors, Greek mouldings, meaningless outlines, all styles conglomerated, magnificence out of place and out of season.
The town of Alencon gabbled for two weeks over this luxury, which seemed unparalleled; but a few months later the community was proud of it, and several rich manufacturers restored their houses and set up fine salons. Modern furniture came into the town, and astral lamps were seen!
The Abbe de Sponde was among the first to perceive the secret unhappiness this marriage now brought to the private life of his beloved niece. The character of noble simplicity which had hitherto ruled their lives was lost during the first winter, when du Bousquier gave two balls every month. Oh, to hear violins and profane music at these worldly entertainments in the sacred old house! The abbe prayed on his knees while the revels lasted. Next the political system of the sober salon was slowly perverted. The abbe fathomed du Bousquier; he shuddered at his imperious tone; he saw the tears in his niece's eyes when she felt herself losing all control over her own property; for her husband now left nothing in her hands but the management of the linen, the table, and things of a kind which are the lot of women. Rose had no longer any orders to give. Monsieur's will was alone regarded by Jacquelin, now become coachman, by Rene, the groom, and by the chef, who came from Paris, Mariette being reduced to kitchen maid. Madame du Bousquier had no one to rule but Josette. Who knows what it costs to relinquish the delights of power? If the triumph of the will is one of the intoxicating pleasures in the lives of great men, it is the ALL of life to narrow minds. One must needs have been a minister dismissed from power to comprehend the bitter pain which came upon Madame du Bousquier when she found herself reduced to this absolute servitude. She often got into the carriage against her will; she saw herself surrounded by servants who were distasteful to her; she no longer had the handling of her dear money,—she who had known herself free to spend money, and did not spend it.
All imposed limits make the human being desire to go beyond them. The keenest sufferings come from the thwarting of self-will. The beginning of this state of things was, however, rose-colored. Every concession made to marital authority was an effect of the love which the poor woman felt for her husband. Du Bousquier behaved, in the first instance, admirably to his wife: he was wise; he was excellent; he gave her the best of reasons for each new encroachment. So for the first two years of her marriage Madame du Bousquier appeared to be satisfied. She had that deliberate, demure little air which distinguishes young women who have married for love. The rush of blood to her head no longer tormented her. This appearance of satisfaction routed the scoffers, contradicted certain rumors about du Bousquier, and puzzled all observers of the human heart. Rose-Marie-Victoire was so afraid that if she displeased her husband or opposed him, she would lose his affection and be deprived of his company, that she would willingly have sacrificed all to him, even her uncle. Her silly little forms of pleasure deceived even the poor abbe for a time, who endured his own trials all the better for thinking that his niece was happy, after all.
Alencon at first thought the same. But there was one man more difficult to deceive than the whole town put together. The Chevalier de Valois, who had taken refuge on the Sacred Mount of the upper aristocracy, now passed his life at the d'Esgrignons. He listened to the gossip and the gabble, and he thought day and night upon his vengeance. He meant to strike du Bousquier to the heart.
The poor abbe fully understood the baseness of this first and last love of his niece; he shuddered as, little by little, he perceived the hypocritical nature of his nephew and his treacherous manoeuvres. Though du Bousquier restrained himself, as he thought of the abbe's property, and wished not to cause him vexation, it was his hand that dealt the blow that sent the old priest to his grave. If you will interpret the word intolerance as firmness of principle, if you do not wish to condemn in the catholic soul of the Abbe de Sponde the stoicism which Walter Scott has made you admire in the puritan soul of Jeanie Deans' father; if you are willing to recognize in the Roman Church the Potius mori quam foedari that you admire in republican tenets,—you will understand the sorrow of the Abbe de Sponde when he saw in his niece's salon the apostate priest, the renegade, the pervert, the heretic, that enemy of the Church, the guilty taker of the Constitutional oath. Du Bousquier, whose secret ambition was to lay down the law to the town, wished, as a first proof of his power, to reconcile the minister of Saint-Leonard with the rector of the parish, and he succeeded. His wife thought he had accomplished a work of peace where the immovable abbe saw only treachery. The bishop came to visit du Bousquier, and seemed glad of the cessation of hostilities. The virtues of the Abbe Francois had conquered prejudice, except that of the aged Roman Catholic, who exclaimed with Cornelle, "Alas! what virtues do you make me hate!"
The abbe died when orthodoxy thus expired in the diocese.
In 1819, the property of the Abbe de Sponde increased Madame du Bousquier's income from real estate to twenty-five thousand francs without counting Prebaudet or the house in the Val-Noble. About this time du Bousquier returned to his wife the capital of her savings which she had yielded to him; and he made her use it in purchasing lands contiguous to Prebaudet, which made that domain one of the most considerable in the department, for the estates of the Abbe de Sponde also adjoined it. Du Bousquier thus passed for one of the richest men of the department. This able man, the constant candidate of the liberals, missing by seven or eight votes only in all the electoral battles fought under the Restoration, and who ostensibly repudiated the liberals by trying to be elected as a ministerial royalist (without ever being able to conquer the aversion of the administration),—this rancorous republican, mad with ambition, resolved to rival the royalism and aristocracy of Alencon at the moment when they once more had the upper hand. He strengthened himself with the Church by the deceitful appearance of a well-feigned piety: he accompanied his wife to mass; he gave money for the convents of the town; he assisted the congregation of the Sacre-Coeur; he took sides with the clergy on all occasions when the clergy came into collision with the town, the department, or the State. Secretly supported by the liberals, protected by the Church, calling himself a constitutional royalist, he kept beside the aristocracy of the department in the one hope of ruining it,—and he did ruin it. Ever on the watch for the faults and blunders of the nobility and the government, he laid plans for his vengeance against the "chateau-people," and especially against the d'Esgrignons, in whose bosom he was one day to thrust a poisoned dagger.
Among other benefits to the town he gave money liberally to revive the manufacture of point d'Alencon; he renewed the trade in linens, and the town had a factory. Inscribing himself thus upon the interests and heart of the masses, by doing what the royalists did not do, du Bousquier did not really risk a farthing. Backed by his fortune, he could afford to wait results which enterprising persons who involve themselves are forced to abandon to luckier successors.
Du Bousquier now posed as a banker. This miniature Lafitte was a partner in all new enterprises, taking good security. He served himself while apparently serving the interests of the community. He was the prime mover of insurance companies, the protector of new enterprises for public conveyance; he suggested petitions for asking the administration for the necessary roads and bridges. Thus warned, the government considered this action an encroachment of its own authority. A struggle was begun injudiciously, for the good of the community compelled the authorities to yield in the end. Du Bousquier embittered the provincial nobility against the court nobility and the peerage; and finally he brought about the shocking adhesion of a strong party of constitutional royalists to the warfare sustained by the "Journal des Debats," and M. de Chateaubriand against the throne,—an ungrateful opposition based on ignoble interests, which was one cause of the triumph of the bourgeoisie and journalism in 1830.
Thus du Bousquier, in common with the class he represented, had the satisfaction of beholding the funeral of royalty. The old republican, smothered with masses, who for fifteen years had played that comedy to satisfy his vendetta, himself threw down with his own hand the white flag of the mayoralty to the applause of the multitude. No man in France cast upon the new throne raised in August, 1830, a glance of more intoxicated, joyous vengeance. The accession of the Younger Branch was the triumph of the Revolution. To him the victory of the tricolor meant the resurrection of Montagne, which this time should surely bring the nobility down to the dust by means more certain than that of the guillotine, because less violent. The peerage without heredity; the National Guard, which puts on the same camp-bed the corner grocer and the marquis; the abolition of the entails demanded by a bourgeois lawyer; the Catholic Church deprived of its supremacy; and all the other legislative inventions of August, 1830,—were to du Bousquier the wisest possible application of the principles of 1793.
Since 1830 this man has been a receiver-general. He relied for his advancement on his relations with the Duc d'Orleans, father of Louis Philippe, and with Monsieur de Folmon, formerly steward to the Duchess-dowager of Orleans. He receives about eighty thousand francs a year. In the eyes of the people about him Monsieur du Bousquier is a man of means,—a respectable man, steady in his principles, upright, and obliging. Alencon owes to him its connection with the industrial movement by which Brittany may possibly some day be joined to what is popularly called modern civilization. Alencon, which up to 1816 could boast of only two private carriages, saw, without amazement, in the course of ten years, coupes, landaus, tilburies, and cabriolets rolling through her streets. The burghers and the land-owners, alarmed at first lest the price of everything should increase, recognized later that this increase in the style of living had a contrary effect upon their revenues. The prophetic remark of du Ronceret, "Du Bousquier is a very strong man," was adopted by the whole country-side.
But, unhappily for the wife, that saying has a double meaning. The husband does not in any way resemble the public politician. This great citizen, so liberal to the world about him, so kindly inspired with love for his native place, is a despot in his own house, and utterly devoid of conjugal affection. This man, so profoundly astute, hypocritical, and sly; this Cromwell of the Val-Noble,—behaves in his home as he behaves to the aristocracy, whom he caresses in hopes to throttle them. Like his friend Bernadotte, he wears a velvet glove upon his iron hand. His wife has given him no children. Suzanne's remark and the chevalier's insinuations were therefore justified. But the liberal bourgeoisie, the constitutional-royalist-bourgeoisie, the country-squires, the magistracy, and the "church party" laid the blame on Madame du Bousquier. "She was too old," they said; "Monsieur du Bousquier had married her too late. Besides, it was very lucky for the poor woman; it was dangerous at her age to bear children!" When Madame du Bousquier confided, weeping, her periodic despair to Mesdames du Coudrai and du Ronceret, those ladies would reply,—
"But you are crazy, my dear; you don't know what you are wishing for; a child would be your death."
Many men, whose hopes were fastened on du Bousquier's triumph, sang his praises to their wives, who in turn repeated them to the poor wife in some such speech as this:—
"You are very lucky, dear, to have married such an able man; you'll escape the misery of women whose husbands are men without energy, incapable of managing their property, or bringing up their children."
"Your husband is making you queen of the department, my love. He'll never leave you embarrassed, not he! Why, he leads all Alencon."
"But I wish," said the poor wife, "that he gave less time to the public and—"
"You are hard to please, my dear Madame du Bousquier. I assure you that all the women in town envy you your husband."
Misjudged by society, which began by blaming her, the pious woman found ample opportunity in her home to display her virtues. She lived in tears, but she never ceased to present to others a placid face. To so Christian a soul a certain thought which pecked forever at her heart was a crime: "I loved the Chevalier de Valois," it said; "but I have married du Bousquier." The love of poor Athanase Granson also rose like a phantom of remorse, and pursued her even in her dreams. The death of her uncle, whose griefs at the last burst forth, made her life still more sorrowful; for she now felt the suffering her uncle must have endured in witnessing the change of political and religious opinion in the old house. Sorrow often falls like a thunderbolt, as it did on Madame Granson; but in this old maid it slowly spread like a drop of oil, which never leaves the stuff that slowly imbibes it.
The Chevalier de Valois was the malicious manipulator who brought about the crowning misfortune of Madame du Bousquier's life. His heart was set on undeceiving her pious simplicity; for the chevalier, expert in love, divined du Bousquier, the married man, as he had divined du Bousquier, the bachelor. But the wary republican was difficult of attack. His salon was, of course, closed to the Chevalier de Valois, as to all those who, in the early days of his marriage, had slighted the Cormon mansion. He was, moreover, impervious to ridicule; he possessed a vast fortune; he reigned in Alencon; he cared as little for his wife as Richard III. cared for the dead horse which had helped him win a battle. To please her husband, Madame du Bousquier had broken off relations with the d'Esgrignon household, where she went no longer, except that sometimes when her husband left her during his trips to Paris, she would pay a brief visit to Mademoiselle Armande.
About three years after her marriage, at the time of the Abbe de Sponde's death, Mademoiselle Armande joined Madame du Bousquier as they were leaving Saint-Leonard's, where they had gone to hear a requiem said for him. The generous demoiselle thought that on this occasion she owed her sympathy to the niece in trouble. They walked together, talking of the dear deceased, until they reached the forbidden house, into which Mademoiselle Armande enticed Madame du Bousquier by the charm of her manner and conversation. The poor desolate woman was glad to talk of her uncle with one whom he truly loved. Moreover, she wanted to receive the condolences of the old marquis, whom she had not seen for nearly three years. It was half-past one o'clock, and she found at the hotel d'Esgrignon the Chevalier de Valois, who had come to dinner. As he bowed to her, he took her by the hands.
"Well, dear, virtuous, and beloved lady," he said, in a tone of emotion, "we have lost our sainted friend; we share your grief. Yes, your loss is as keenly felt here as in your own home,—more so," he added, alluding to du Bousquier.
After a few more words of funeral oration, in which all present spoke from the heart, the chevalier took Madame du Bousquier's arm, and, gallantly placing it within his own, pressed it adoringly as he led her to the recess of a window.
"Are you happy?" he said in a fatherly voice.
"Yes," she said, dropping her eyes.
Hearing that "Yes," Madame de Troisville, the daughter of the Princess Scherbellof, and the old Marquise de Casteran came up and joined the chevalier, together with Mademoiselle Armande. They all went to walk in the garden until dinner was served, without any perception on the part of Madame du Bousquier that a little conspiracy was afoot. "We have her! now let us find out the secret of the case," were the words written in the eyes of all present.
"To make your happiness complete," said Mademoiselle Armande, "you ought to have children,—a fine lad like my nephew—"
Tears seemed to start in Madame du Bousquier's eyes.
"I have heard it said that you were the one to blame in the matter, and that you feared the dangers of a pregnancy," said the chevalier.
"I!" she said artlessly. "I would buy a child with a hundred years of purgatory if I could."
On the question thus started a discussion arose, conducted by Madame de Troisville and the old Marquise de Casteran with such delicacy and adroitness that the poor victim revealed, without being aware of it, the secrets of her house. Mademoiselle Armande had taken the chevalier's arm, and walked away so as to leave the three women free to discuss wedlock. Madame du Bousquier was then enlightened on the various deceptions of her marriage; and as she was still the same simpleton she had always been, she amused her advisers by delightful naivetes.
Although at first the deceptive marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon made a laugh throughout the town, which was soon initiated into the story of the case, before long Madame du Bousquier won the esteem and sympathy of all the women. The fact that Mademoiselle Cormon had flung herself headlong into marriage without succeeding in being married, made everybody laugh at her; but when they learned the exceptional position in which the sternness of her religious principles placed her, all the world admired her. "That poor Madame du Bousquier" took the place of "That good Mademoiselle Cormon."
Thus the chevalier contrived to render du Bousquier both ridiculous and odious for a time; but ridicule ends by weakening; when all had said their say about him, the gossip died out. Besides, at fifty-seven years of age the dumb republican seemed to many people to have a right to retire. This affair, however, envenomed the hatred which du Bousquier already bore to the house of Esgrignon to such a degree that it made him pitiless when the day of vengeance came. [See "The Gallery of Antiquities."] Madame du Bousquier received orders never again to set foot into that house. By way of reprisals upon the chevalier for the trick thus played him, du Bousquier, who had just created the journal called the "Courrier de l'Orne," caused the following notice to be inserted in it:—
- "Bonds to the amount of one thousand francs a year will be paid to any person who can prove the existence of one Monsieur de Pombreton before, during, or after the Emigration."
Although her marriage was essentially negative, Madame du Bousquier saw some advantages in it: was it not better to interest herself in the most remarkable man in the town than to live alone? Du Bousquier was preferable to a dog, or cat, or those canaries that spinsters love. He showed for his wife a sentiment more real and less selfish than that which is felt by servants, confessors, and hopeful heirs. Later in life she came to consider her husband as the instrument of divine wrath; for she then saw innumerable sins in her former desires for marriage; she regarded herself as justly punished for the sorrow she had brought on Madame Granson, and for the hastened death of her uncle. Obedient to that religion which commands us to kiss the rod with which the punishment is inflicted, she praised her husband, and publicly approved him. But in the confessional, or at night, when praying, she wept often, imploring God's forgiveness for the apostasy of the man who thought the contrary of what he professed, and who desired the destruction of the aristocracy and the Church,—the two religions of the house of Cormon.
With all her feelings bruised and immolated within her, compelled by duty to make her husband happy, attached to him by a certain indefinable affection, born, perhaps, of habit, her life became one perpetual contradiction. She had married a man whose conduct and opinions she hated, but whom she was bound to care for with dutiful tenderness. Often she walked with the angels when du Bousquier ate her preserves or thought the dinner good. She watched to see that his slightest wish was satisfied. If he tore off the cover of his newspaper and left it on a table, instead of throwing it away, she would say:—
"Rene, leave that where it is; monsieur did not place it there without intention."
If du Bousquier had a journey to take, she was anxious about his trunk, his linen; she took the most minute precautions for his material benefit. If he went to Prebaudet, she consulted the barometer the evening before to know if the weather would be fine. She watched for his will in his eyes, like a dog which hears and sees its master while sleeping. When the stout du Bousquier, touched by this scrupulous love, would take her round the waist and kiss her forehead, saying, "What a good woman you are!" tears of pleasure would come into the eyes of the poor creature. It is probably that du Bousquier felt himself obliged to make certain concessions which obtained for him the respect of Rose-Marie-Victoire; for Catholic virtue does not require a dissimulation as complete as that of Madame du Bousquier. Often the good saint sat mutely by and listened to the hatred of men who concealed themselves under the cloak of constitutional royalists. She shuddered as she foresaw the ruin of the Church. Occasionally she risked a stupid word, an observation which du Bousquier cut short with a glance.
The worries of such an existence ended by stupefying Madame du Bousquier, who found it easier and also more dignified to concentrate her intelligence on her own thoughts and resign herself to lead a life that was purely animal. She then adopted the submission of a slave, and regarded it as a meritorious deed to accept the degradation in which her husband placed her. The fulfilment of his will never once caused her to murmur. The timid sheep went henceforth in the way the shepherd led her; she gave herself up to the severest religious practices, and thought no more of Satan and his works and vanities. Thus she presented to the eyes of the world a union of all Christian virtues; and du Bousquier was certainly one of the luckiest men in the kingdom of France and of Navarre.
"She will be a simpleton to her last breath," said the former collector, who, however, dined with her twice a week.
This history would be strangely incomplete if no mention were made of the coincidence of the Chevalier de Valois's death occurring at the same time as that of Suzanne's mother. The chevalier died with the monarchy, in August, 1830. He had joined the cortege of Charles X. at Nonancourt, and piously escorted it to Cherbourg with the Troisvilles, Casterans, d'Esgrignons, Verneuils, etc. The old gentleman had taken with him fifty thousand francs,—the sum to which his savings then amounted. He offered them to one of the faithful friends of the king for transmission to his master, speaking of his approaching death, and declaring that the money came originally from the goodness of the king, and, moreover, that the property of the last of the Valois belonged of right to the crown. It is not known whether the fervor of his zeal conquered the reluctance of the Bourbon, who abandoned his fine kingdom of France without carrying away with him a farthing, and who ought to have been touched by the devotion of the chevalier. It is certain, however, that Cesarine, the residuary legate of the old man, received from his estate only six hundred francs a year. The chevalier returned to Alencon, cruelly weakened by grief and by fatigue; he died on the very day when Charles X. arrived on a foreign shore.
Madame du Val-Noble and her protector, who was just then afraid of the vengeance of the liberal party, were glad of a pretext to remain incognito in the village where Suzanne's mother died. At the sale of the chevalier's effects, which took place at that time, Suzanne, anxious to obtain a souvenir of her first and last friend, pushed up the price of the famous snuff-box, which was finally knocked down to her for a thousand francs. The portrait of the Princess Goritza was alone worth that sum. Two years later, a young dandy, who was making a collection of the fine snuff-boxes of the last century, obtained from Madame du Val-Noble the chevalier's treasure. The charming confidant of many a love and the pleasure of an old age is now on exhibition in a species of private museum. If the dead could know what happens after them, the chevalier's head would surely blush upon its left cheek.
If this history has no other effect than to inspire the possessors of precious relics with holy fear, and induce them to make codicils to secure these touching souvenirs of joys that are no more by bequeathing them to loving hands, it will have done an immense service to the chivalrous and romantic portion of the community; but it does, in truth, contain a far higher moral. Does it not show the necessity for a new species of education? Does it not invoke, from the enlightened solicitude of the ministers of Public Instruction, the creation of chairs of anthropology,—a science in which Germany outstrips us? Modern myths are even less understood than ancient ones, harried as we are with myths. Myths are pressing us from every point; they serve all theories, they explain all questions. They are, according to human ideas, the torches of history; they would save empires from revolution if only the professors of history would force the explanations they give into the mind of the provincial masses. If Mademoiselle Cormon had been a reader or a student, and if there had existed in the department of the Orne a professor of anthropology, or even had she read Ariosto, the frightful disasters of her conjugal life would never have occurred. She would probably have known why the Italian poet makes Angelica prefer Medoro, who was a blond Chevalier de Valois, to Orlando, whose mare was dead, and who knew no better than to fly into a passion. Is not Medoro the mythic form for all courtiers of feminine royalty, and Orlando the myth of disorderly, furious, and impotent revolutions, which destroy but cannot produce? We publish, but without assuming any responsibility for it, this opinion of a pupil of Monsieur Ballanche.
No information has reached us as to the fate of the negroes' heads in diamonds. You may see Madame du Val-Noble every evening at the Opera. Thanks to the education given her by the Chevalier de Valois, she has almost the air of a well-bred woman.
Madame du Bousquier still lives; is not that as much as to say she still suffers? After reaching the age of sixty—the period at which women allow themselves to make confessions—she said confidentially to Madame du Coudrai, that she had never been able to endure the idea of dying an old maid.