What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 1

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What Love Costs an Old Man by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 1

For a whole week Nucingen went almost every day to the shop in the Rue Nueve-Saint-Marc to bargain for the woman he was in love with. Here, sometimes under the name of Saint-Esteve, sometimes under that of her tool, Madame Nourrisson, Asie sat enthroned among beautiful clothes in that hideous condition when they have ceased to be dresses and are not yet rags.

The setting was in harmony with the appearance assumed by the woman, for these shops are among the most hideous characteristics of Paris. You find there the garments tossed aside by the skinny hand of Death; you hear, as it were, the gasping of consumption under a shawl, or you detect the agonies of beggery under a gown spangled with gold. The horrible struggle between luxury and starvation is written on filmy laces; you may picture the countenance of a queen under a plumed turban placed in an attitude that recalls and almost reproduces the absent features. It is all hideous amid prettiness! Juvenal's lash, in the hands of the appraiser, scatters the shabby muffs, the ragged furs of courtesans at bay.

There is a dunghill of flowers, among which here and there we find a bright rose plucked but yesterday and worn for a day; and on this an old hag is always to be seen crouching—first cousin to Usury, the skinflint bargainer, bald and toothless, and ever ready to sell the contents, so well is she used to sell the covering—the gown without the woman, or the woman without the gown!

Here Asie was in her element, like the warder among convicts, like a vulture red-beaked amid corpses; more terrible than the savage horrors that made the passer-by shudder in astonishment sometimes, at seeing one of their youngest and sweetest reminiscences hung up in a dirty shop window, behind which a Saint-Esteve sits and grins.

From vexation to vexation, a thousand francs at a time, the banker had gone so far as to offer sixty thousand francs to Madame de Saint-Esteve, who still refused to help him, with a grimace that would have outdone any monkey. After a disturbed night, after confessing to himself that Esther completely upset his ideas, after realizing some unexpected turns of fortune on the Bourse, he came to her one day, intending to give the hundred thousand francs on which Asie insisted, but he was determined to have plenty of information for the money.

"Well, have you made up your mind, old higgler?" said Asie, clapping him on the shoulder.

The most dishonoring familiarity is the first tax these women levy on the frantic passions or griefs that are confided to them; they never rise to the level of their clients; they make them seem squat beside them on their mudheap. Asie, it will be seen, obeyed her master admirably.

"Need must!" said Nucingen.

"And you have the best of the bargain," said Asie. "Women have been sold much dearer than this one to you—relatively speaking. There are women and women! De Marsay paid sixty thousand francs for Coralie, who is dead now. The woman you want cost a hundred thousand francs when new; but to you, you old goat, it is a matter of agreement."

"But vere is she?"

"Ah! you shall see. I am like you—a gift for a gift! Oh, my good man, your adored one has been extravagant. These girls know no moderation. Your princess is at this moment what we call a fly by night——"

"A fly——?"

"Come, come, don't play the simpleton.—Louchard is at her heels, and I—I—have lent her fifty thousand francs——"

"Twenty-fife say!" cried the banker.

"Well, of course, twenty-five for fifty, that is only natural," replied Asie. "To do the woman justice, she is honesty itself. She had nothing left but herself, and says she to me: 'My good Madame Saint-Esteve, the bailiffs are after me; no one can help me but you. Give me twenty thousand francs. I will pledge my heart to you.' Oh, she has a sweet heart; no one but me knows where it lies. Any folly on my part, and I should lose my twenty thousand francs.

"Formerly she lived in the Rue Taitbout. Before leaving—(her furniture was seized for costs—those rascally bailiffs—You know them, you who are one of the great men on the Bourse)—well, before leaving, she is no fool, she let her rooms for two months to an Englishwoman, a splendid creature who had a little thingummy—Rubempre—for a lover, and he was so jealous that he only let her go out at night. But as the furniture is to be seized, the Englishwoman has cut her stick, all the more because she cost too much for a little whipper-snapper like Lucien."

"You cry up de goots," said Nucingen.

"Naturally," said Asie. "I lend to the beauties; and it pays, for you get two commissions for one job."

Asie was amusing herself by caricaturing the manners of a class of women who are even greedier but more wheedling and mealy-mouthed than the Malay woman, and who put a gloss of the best motives on the trade they ply. Asie affected to have lost all her illusions, five lovers, and some children, and to have submitted to be robbed by everybody in spite of her experience. From time to time she exhibited some pawn-tickets, to prove how much bad luck there was in her line of business. She represented herself as pinched and in debt, and to crown all, she was so undisguisedly hideous that the Baron at last believed her to be all she said she was.

"Vell den, I shall pay the hundert tousant, and vere shall I see her?" said he, with the air of a man who has made up his mind to any sacrifice.

"My fat friend, you shall come this evening—in your carriage, of course—opposite the Gymnase. It is on the way," said Asie. "Stop at the corner of the Rue Saint-Barbe. I will be on the lookout, and we will go and find my mortgaged beauty, with the black hair.—Oh, she has splendid hair, has my mortgage. If she pulls out her comb, Esther is covered as if it were a pall. But though you are knowing in arithmetic, you strike me as a muff in other matters; and I advise you to hide the girl safely, for if she is found she will be clapped into Sainte-Pelagie the very next day.—And they are looking for her."

"Shall it not be possible to get holt of de bills?" said the incorrigible bill-broker.

"The bailiffs have got them—but it is impossible. The girl has had a passion, and has spent some money left in her hands, which she is now called upon to pay. By the poker!—a queer thing is a heart of two and-twenty."

"Ver' goot, ver' goot, I shall arrange all dat," said Nucingen, assuming a cunning look. "It is qvite settled dat I shall protect her."

"Well, old noodle, it is your business to make her fall in love with you, and you certainly have ample means to buy sham love as good as the real article. I will place your princess in your keeping; she is bound to stick to you, and after that I don't care.—But she is accustomed to luxury and the greatest consideration. I tell you, my boy, she is quite the lady.—If not, should I have given her twenty thousand francs?"

"Ver' goot, it is a pargain. Till dis efening."

The Baron repeated the bridal toilet he had already once achieved; but this time, being certain of success, he took a double dose of pillules.

At nine o'clock he found the dreadful woman at the appointed spot, and took her into his carriage.

"Vere to?" said the Baron.

"Where?" echoed Asie. "Rue de la Perle in the Marais—an address for the nonce; for your pearl is in the mud, but you will wash her clean."

Having reached the spot, the false Madame de Saint-Esteve said to Nucingen with a hideous smile:

"We must go a short way on foot; I am not such a fool as to have given you the right address."

"You tink of eferytink!" said the baron.

"It is my business," said she.

Asie led Nucingen to the Rue Barbette, where, in furnished lodgings kept by an upholsterer, he was led up to the fourth floor.

On finding Esther in a squalid room, dressed as a work-woman, and employed on some embroidery, the millionaire turned pale. At the end of a quarter of an hour, while Asie affected to talk in whispers to Esther, the young old man could hardly speak.

"Montemisselle," said he at length to the unhappy girl, "vill you be so goot as to let me be your protector?"

"Why, I cannot help myself, monsieur," replied Esther, letting fall two large tears.

"Do not veep. I shall make you de happiest of vomen. Only permit that I shall lof you—you shall see."

"Well, well, child, the gentleman is reasonable," said Asie. "He knows that he is more than sixty, and he will be very kind to you. You see, my beauty, I have found you quite a father—I had to say so," Asie whispered to the banker, who was not best pleased. "You cannot catch swallows by firing a pistol at them.—Come here," she went on, leading Nucingen into the adjoining room. "You remember our bargain, my angel?"

Nucingen took out his pocketbook and counted out the hundred thousand francs, which Carlos, hidden in a cupboard, was impatiently waiting for, and which the cook handed over to him.

"Here are the hundred thousand francs our man stakes on Asie. Now we must make him lay on Europe," said Carlos to his confidante when they were on the landing.

And he vanished after giving his instruction to the Malay who went back into the room. She found Esther weeping bitterly. The poor girl, like a criminal condemned to death, had woven a romance of hope, and the fatal hour had tolled.

"My dear children," said Asie, "where do you mean to go?—For the Baron de Nucingen——"

Esther looked at the great banker with a start of surprise that was admirably acted.

"Ja, mein kind, I am dat Baron von Nucingen."

"The Baron de Nucingen must not, cannot remain in such a room as this," Asie went on. "Listen to me; your former maid Eugenie."

"Eugenie, from the Rue Taitbout?" cried the Baron.

"Just so; the woman placed in possession of the furniture," replied Asie, "and who let the apartment to that handsome Englishwoman——"

"Hah! I onderstant!" said the Baron.

"Madame's former waiting-maid," Asie went on, respectfully alluding to Esther, "will receive you very comfortably this evening; and the commercial police will never think of looking for her in her old rooms which she left three months ago——"

"Feerst rate, feerst rate!" cried the Baron. "An' besides, I know dese commercial police, an' I know vat sorts shall make dem disappear."

"You will find Eugenie a sharp customer," said Asie. "I found her for madame."

"Hah! I know her!" cried the millionaire, laughing. "She haf fleeced me out of dirty tousant franc."

Esther shuddered with horror in a way that would have led a man of any feeling to trust her with his fortune.

"Oh, dat vas mein own fault," the Baron said. "I vas seeking for you."

And he related the incident that had arisen out of the letting of Esther's rooms to the Englishwoman.

"There, now, you see, madame, Eugenie never told you all that, the sly thing!" said Asie.—"Still, madame is used to the hussy," she added to the Baron. "Keep her on, all the same."

She drew Nucingen aside and said:

"If you give Eugenie five hundred francs a month, which will fill up her stocking finely, you can know everything that madame does: make her the lady's-maid. Eugenie will be all the more devoted to you since she has already done you.—Nothing attaches a woman to a man more than the fact that she has once fleeced him. But keep a tight rein on Eugenie; she will do any earthly thing for money; she is a dreadful creature!"

"An' vat of you?"

"I," said Asie, "I make both ends meet."

Nucingen, the astute financier, had a bandage over his eyes; he allowed himself to be led like a child. The sight of that spotless and adorable Esther wiping her eyes and pricking in the stitches of her embroidery as demurely as an innocent girl, revived in the amorous old man the sensations he had experienced in the Forest of Vincennes; he would have given her the key of his safe. He felt so young, his heart was so overflowing with adoration; he only waited till Asie should be gone to throw himself at the feet of this Raphael's Madonna.

This sudden blossoming of youth in the heart of a stockbroker, of an old man, is one of the social phenomena which must be left to physiology to account for. Crushed under the burden of business, stifled under endless calculations and the incessant anxieties of million-hunting, young emotions revive with their sublime illusions, sprout and flower like a forgotten cause or a forgotten seed, whose effects, whose gorgeous bloom, are the sport of chance, brought out by a late and sudden gleam of sunshine.

The Baron, a clerk by the time he was twelve years old in the ancient house of Aldrigger at Strasbourg, had never set foot in the world of sentiment. So there he stood in front of his idol, hearing in his brain a thousand modes of speech, while none came to his lips, till at length he acted on the brutal promptings of desire that betrayed a man of sixty-six.

"Vill you come to Rue Taitbout?" said he.

"Wherever you please, monsieur," said Esther, rising.

"Verever I please!" he echoed in rapture. "You are ein anchel from de sky, and I lofe you more as if I was a little man, vile I hafe gray hairs——"

"You had better say white, for they are too fine a black to be only gray," said Asie.

"Get out, foul dealer in human flesh! You hafe got your moneys; do not slobber no more on dis flower of lofe!" cried the banker, indemnifying himself by this violent abuse for all the insolence he had submitted to.

"You old rip! I will pay you out for that speech!" said Asie, threatening the banker with a gesture worthy of the Halle, at which the Baron merely shrugged his shoulders. "Between the lip of the pot and that of the guzzler there is often a viper, and you will find me there!" she went on, furious at Nucingen's contempt.

Millionaires, whose money is guarded by the Bank of France, whose mansions are guarded by a squad of footmen, whose person in the streets is safe behind the rampart of a coach with swift English horses, fear no ill; so the Baron looked calmly at Asie, as a man who had just given her a hundred thousand francs.

This dignity had its effect. Asie beat a retreat, growling down the stairs in highly revolutionary language; she spoke of the guillotine!

"What have you said to her?" asked the Madonna a la broderie, "for she is a good soul."

"She hafe solt you, she hafe robbed you——"

"When we are beggared," said she, in a tone to rend the heart of a diplomate, "who has ever any money or consideration for us?"

"Poor leetle ting!" said Nucingen. "Do not stop here ein moment longer."

The Baron offered her his arm; he led her away just as she was, and put her into his carriage with more respect perhaps than he would have shown to the handsome Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.

"You shall hafe a fine carriage, de prettiest carriage in Paris," said Nucingen, as they drove along. "Everyting dat luxury shall sopply shall be for you. Not any qveen shall be more rich dan vat you shall be. You shall be respected like ein Cherman Braut. I shall hafe you to be free.—Do not veep! Listen to me—I lofe you really, truly, mit de purest lofe. Efery tear of yours breaks my heart."

"Can one truly love a woman one has bought?" said the poor girl in the sweetest tones.

"Choseph vas solt by his broders for dat he was so comely. Dat is so in de Biple. An' in de Eastern lants men buy deir wifes."