What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 13
Five days after the nabob's disappearance, Madame du Val-Noble was sitting by Esther's bedside weeping, for she felt herself on one of the slopes down to poverty.
"If I only had at least a hundred louis a year! With that sum, my dear, a woman can retire to some little town and find a husband——"
"I can get you as much as that," said Esther.
"How?" cried Madame du Val-Noble.
"Oh, in a very simple way. Listen. You must plan to kill yourself; play your part well. Send for Asie and offer her ten thousand francs for two black beads of very thin glass containing a poison which kills you in a second. Bring them to me, and I will give you fifty thousand francs for them."
"Why do you not ask her for them yourself?" said her friend.
"Asie would not sell them to me."
"They are not for yourself?" asked Madame du Val-Noble.
"You! who live in the midst of pleasure and luxury, in a house of your own? And on the eve of an entertainment which will be the talk of Paris for ten years—which is to cost Nucingen twenty thousand francs! There are to be strawberries in mid-February, they say, asparagus, grapes, melons!—and a thousand crowns' worth of flowers in the rooms."
"What are you talking about? There are a thousand crowns' worth of roses on the stairs alone."
"And your gown is said to have cost ten thousand francs?"
"Yes, it is of Brussels point, and Delphine, his wife, is furious. But I had a fancy to be disguised as a bride."
"Where are the ten thousand francs?" asked Madame du Val-Noble.
"It is all the ready money I have," said Esther, smiling. "Open my table drawer; it is under the curl-papers."
"People who talk of dying never kill themselves," said Madame du Val-Noble. "If it were to commit——"
"A crime? For shame!" said Esther, finishing her friend's thought, as she hesitated. "Be quite easy, I have no intention of killing anybody. I had a friend—a very happy woman; she is dead, I must follow her—that is all."
"How can I help it? I promised her I would."
"I should let that bill go dishonored," said her friend, smiling.
"Do as I tell you, and go at once. I hear a carriage coming. It is Nucingen, a man who will go mad with joy! Yes, he loves me!—Why do we not love those who love us, for indeed they do all they can to please us?"
"Ah, that is the question!" said Madame du Val-Noble. "It is the old story of the herring, which is the most puzzling fish that swims."
"Well, no one could ever find out."
"Get along, my dear!—I must ask for your fifty thousand francs."
For three days past, Esther's ways with the Baron de Nucingen had completely changed. The monkey had become a cat, the cat had become a woman. Esther poured out treasures of affection on the old man; she was quite charming. Her way of addressing him, with a total absence of mischief or bitterness, and all sorts of tender insinuation, had carried conviction to the banker's slow wit; she called him Fritz, and he believed that she loved him.
"My poor Fritz, I have tried you sorely," said she. "I have teased you shamefully. Your patience has been sublime. You loved me, I see, and I will reward you. I like you now, I do not know how it is, but I should prefer you to a young man. It is the result of experience perhaps.—In the long run we discover at last that pleasure is the coin of the soul; and it is not more flattering to be loved for the sake of pleasure than it is to be loved for the sake of money.
"Besides, young men are too selfish; they think more of themselves than of us; while you, now, think only of me. I am all your life to you. And I will take nothing more from you. I want to prove to you how disinterested I am."
"Vy, I hafe gifen you notink," cried the Baron, enchanted. "I propose to gife you to-morrow tirty tousant francs a year in a Government bond. Dat is mein vedding gift."
Esther kissed the Baron so sweetly that he turned pale without any pills.
"Oh!" cried she, "do not suppose that I am sweet to you only for your thirty thousand francs! It is because—now—I love you, my good, fat Frederic."
"Ach, mein Gott! Vy hafe you kept me vaiting? I might hafe been so happy all dese tree monts."
"In three or in five per cents, my pet?" said Esther, passing her fingers through Nucingen's hair, and arranging it in a fashion of her own.
"In trees—I hat a quantity."
So next morning the Baron brought the certificate of shares; he came to breakfast with his dear little girl, and to take her orders for the following evening, the famous Saturday, the great day!
"Here, my little vife, my only vife," said the banker gleefully, his face radiant with happiness. "Here is enough money to pay for your keep for de rest of your days."
Esther took the paper without the slightest excitement, folded it up, and put it in her dressing-table drawer.
"So now you are quite happy, you monster of iniquity!" said she, giving Nucingen a little slap on the cheek, "now that I have at last accepted a present from you. I can no longer tell you home-truths, for I share the fruit of what you call your labors. This is not a gift, my poor old boy, it is restitution.—Come, do not put on your Bourse face. You know that I love you."
"My lofely Esther, mein anchel of lofe," said the banker, "do not speak to me like dat. I tell you, I should not care ven all de vorld took me for a tief, if you should tink me ein honest man.—I lofe you every day more and more."
"That is my intention," said Esther. "And I will never again say anything to distress you, my pet elephant, for you are grown as artless as a baby. Bless me, you old rascal, you have never known any innocence; the allowance bestowed on you when you came into the world was bound to come to the top some day; but it was buried so deep that it is only now reappearing at the age of sixty-six. Fished up by love's barbed hook.—This phenomenon is seen in old men.
"And this is why I have learned to love you, you are young—so young! No one but I would ever have known this, Frederic—I alone. For you were a banker at fifteen; even at college you must have lent your school-fellows one marble on condition of their returning two."
Seeing him laugh, she sprang on to his knee.
"Well, you must do as you please! Bless me! plunder the men—go ahead, and I will help. Men are not worth loving; Napoleon killed them off like flies. Whether they pay taxes to you or to the Government, what difference does it make to them? You don't make love over the budget, and on my honor!—go ahead, I have thought it over, and you are right. Shear the sheep! you will find it in the gospel according to Beranger.
"Now, kiss your Esther.—I say, you will give that poor Val-Noble all the furniture in the Rue Taitbout? And to-morrow I wish you would give her fifty thousand francs—it would look handsome, my duck. You see, you killed Falleix; people are beginning to cry out upon you, and this liberality will look Babylonian—all the women will talk about it! Oh! there will be no one in Paris so grand, so noble as you; and as the world is constituted, Falleix will be forgotten. So, after all, it will be money deposited at interest."
"You are right, mein anchel; you know the vorld," he replied. "You shall be mein adfiser."
"Well, you see," said Esther, "how I study my man's interest, his position and honor.—Go at once and bring those fifty thousand francs."
She wanted to get rid of Monsieur de Nucingen so as to get a stockbroker to sell the bond that very afternoon.
"But vy dis minute?" asked he.
"Bless me, my sweetheart, you must give it to her in a little satin box wrapped round a fan. You must say, 'Here, madame, is a fan which I hope may be to your taste.'—You are supposed to be a Turcaret, and you will become a Beaujon."
"Charming, charming!" cried the Baron. "I shall be so clever henceforth.—Yes, I shall repeat your vorts."
Just as Esther had sat down, tired with the effort of playing her part, Europe came in.
"Madame," said she, "here is a messenger sent from the Quai Malaquais by Celestin, M. Lucien's servant——"
"Bring him in—no, I will go into the ante-room."
"He has a letter for you, madame, from Celestin."
Esther rushed into the ante-room, looked at the messenger, and saw that he looked like the genuine thing.
"Tell him to come down," said Esther, in a feeble voice and dropping into a chair after reading the letter. "Lucien means to kill himself," she added in a whisper to Europe. "No, take the letter up to him."
Carlos Herrera, still in his disguise as a bagman, came downstairs at once, and keenly scrutinized the messenger on seeing a stranger in the ante-room.
"You said there was no one here," said he in a whisper to Europe.
And with an excess of prudence, after looking at the messenger, he went straight into the drawing-room. Trompe-la-Mort did not know that for some time past the famous constable of the detective force who had arrested him at the Maison Vauquer had a rival, who, it was supposed, would replace him. This rival was the messenger.
"They are right," said the sham messenger to Contenson, who was waiting for him in the street. "The man you describe is in the house; but he is not a Spaniard, and I will burn my hand off if there is not a bird for our net under that priest's gown."
"He is no more a priest than he is a Spaniard," said Contenson.
"I am sure of that," said the detective.
"Oh, if only we were right!" said Contenson.
Lucien had been away for two days, and advantage had been taken of his absence to lay this snare, but he returned this evening, and the courtesan's anxieties were allayed. Next morning, at the hour when Esther, having taken a bath, was getting into bed again, Madame du Val-Noble arrived.
"I have the two pills!" said her friend.
"Let me see," said Esther, raising herself with her pretty elbow buried in a pillow trimmed with lace.
Madame du Val-Noble held out to her what looked like two black currants.
The Baron had given Esther a pair of greyhounds of famous pedigree, which will be always known by the name of the great contemporary poet who made them fashionable; and Esther, proud of owning them, had called them by the names of their parents, Romeo and Juliet. No need here to describe the whiteness and grace of these beasts, trained for the drawing-room, with manners suggestive of English propriety. Esther called Romeo; Romeo ran up on legs so supple and thin, so strong and sinewy, that they seemed like steel springs, and looked up at his mistress. Esther, to attract his attention, pretended to throw one of the pills.
"He is doomed by his nature to die thus," said she, as she threw the pill, which Romeo crushed between his teeth.
The dog made no sound, he rolled over, and was stark dead. It was all over while Esther spoke these words of epitaph.
"Good God!" shrieked Madame du Val-Noble.
"You have a cab waiting. Carry away the departed Romeo," said Esther. "His death would make a commotion here. I have given him to you, and you have lost him—advertise for him. Make haste; you will have your fifty thousand francs this evening."
She spoke so calmly, so entirely with the cold indifference of a courtesan, that Madame du Val-Noble exclaimed:
"You are the Queen of us all!"
"Come early, and look very well——"
At five o'clock Esther dressed herself as a bride. She put on her lace dress over white satin, she had a white sash, white satin shoes, and a scarf of English point lace over her beautiful shoulders. In her hair she placed white camellia flowers, the simple ornament of an innocent girl. On her bosom lay a pearl necklace worth thirty thousand francs, a gift from Nucingen.
Though she was dressed by six, she refused to see anybody, even the banker. Europe knew that Lucien was to be admitted to her room. Lucien came at about seven, and Europe managed to get him up to her mistress without anybody knowing of his arrival.
Lucien, as he looked at her, said to himself, "Why not go and live with her at Rubempre, far from the world, and never see Paris again? I have an earnest of five years of her life, and the dear creature is one of those who never belie themselves! Where can I find such another perfect masterpiece?"
"My dear, you whom I have made my God," said Esther, kneeling down on a cushion in front of Lucien, "give me your blessing."
Lucien tried to raise her and kiss her, saying, "What is this jest, my dear love?" And he would have put his arm round her, but she freed herself with a gesture as much of respect as of horror.
"I am no longer worthy of you, Lucien," said she, letting the tears rise to her eyes. "I implore you, give me your blessing, and swear to me that you will found two beds at the Hotel-Dieu—for, as to prayers in church, God will never forgive me unless I pray myself.
"I have loved you too well, my dear. Tell me that I made you happy, and that you will sometimes think of me.—Tell me that!"
Lucien saw that Esther was solemnly in earnest, and he sat thinking.
"You mean to kill yourself," said he at last, in a tone of voice that revealed deep reflection.
"No," said she. "But to-day, my dear, the woman dies, the pure, chaste, and loving woman who once was yours.—And I am very much afraid that I shall die of grief."
"Poor child," said Lucien, "wait! I have worked hard these two days. I have succeeded in seeing Clotilde——"
"Always Clotilde!" cried Esther, in a tone of concentrated rage.
"Yes," said he, "we have written to each other.—On Tuesday morning she is to set out for Italy, but I shall meet her on the road for an interview at Fontainebleau."
"Bless me! what is it that you men want for wives? Wooden laths?" cried poor Esther. "If I had seven or eight millions, would you not marry me—come now?"
"Child! I was going to say that if all is over for me, I will have no wife but you."
Esther bent her head to hide her sudden pallor and the tears she wiped away.
"You love me?" said she, looking at Lucien with the deepest melancholy. "Well, that is my sufficient blessing.—Do not compromise yourself. Go away by the side door, and come in to the drawing-room through the ante-room. Kiss me on the forehead."
She threw her arms round Lucien, clasped him to her heart with frenzy, and said again:
"Go, only go—or I must live."
When the doomed woman appeared in the drawing-room, there was a cry of admiration. Esther's eyes expressed infinitude in which the soul sank as it looked into them. Her blue-black and beautiful hair set off the camellias. In short, this exquisite creature achieved all the effects she had intended. She had no rival. She looked like the supreme expression of that unbridled luxury which surrounded her in every form. Then she was brilliantly witty. She ruled the orgy with the cold, calm power that Habeneck displays when conducting at the Conservatoire, at those concerts where the first musicians in Europe rise to the sublime in interpreting Mozart and Beethoven.
But she observed with terror that Nucingen ate little, drank nothing, and was quite the master of the house.
By midnight everybody was crazy. The glasses were broken that they might never be used again; two of the Chinese curtains were torn; Bixiou was drunk, for the second time in his life. No one could keep his feet, the women were asleep on the sofas, and the guests were incapable of carrying out the practical joke they had planned of escorting Esther and Nucingen to the bedroom, standing in two lines with candles in their hands, and singing Buona sera from the Barber of Seville.
Nucingen simply gave Esther his hand. Bixiou, who saw them, though tipsy, was still able to say, like Rivarol, on the occasion of the Duc de Richelieu's last marriage, "The police must be warned; there is mischief brewing here."
The jester thought he was jesting; he was a prophet.