What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 3
At this moment the Baron de Nucingen, who was leaning on his cashier's arm, reached the door of his mansion.
"I am ver' much afrait," said he, as he went in, "dat I hafe done a bat day's vork. Vell, we must make it up some oder vays."
"De misfortune is dat you shall hafe been caught, mein Herr Baron," said the worthy German, whose whole care was for appearances.
"Ja, my miss'ess en titre should be in a position vody of me," said this Louis XIV. of the counting-house.
Feeling sure that sooner or later Esther would be his, the Baron was now himself again, a masterly financier. He resumed the management of his affairs, and with such effect that his cashier, finding him in his office room at six o'clock next morning, verifying his securities, rubbed his hands with satisfaction.
"Ah, ha! mein Herr Baron, you shall hafe saved money last night!" said he, with a half-cunning, half-loutish German grin.
Though men who are as rich as the Baron de Nucingen have more opportunities than others for losing money, they also have more chances of making it, even when they indulge their follies. Though the financial policy of the house of Nucingen has been explained elsewhere, it may be as well to point out that such immense fortunes are not made, are not built up, are not increased, and are not retained in the midst of the commercial, political, and industrial revolutions of the present day but at the cost of immense losses, or, if you choose to view it so, of heavy taxes on private fortunes. Very little newly-created wealth is thrown into the common treasury of the world. Every fresh accumulation represents some new inequality in the general distribution of wealth. What the State exacts it makes some return for; but what a house like that of Nucingen takes, it keeps.
Such covert robbery escapes the law for the reason which would have made a Jacques Collin of Frederick the Great, if, instead of dealing with provinces by means of battles, he had dealt in smuggled goods or transferable securities. The high politics of money-making consist in forcing the States of Europe to issue loans at twenty or at ten per cent, in making that twenty or ten per cent by the use of public funds, in squeezing industry on a vast scale by buying up raw material, in throwing a rope to the first founder of a business just to keep him above water till his drowned-out enterprise is safely landed—in short, in all the great battles for money-getting.
The banker, no doubt, like the conqueror, runs risks; but there are so few men in a position to wage this warfare, that the sheep have no business to meddle. Such grand struggles are between the shepherds. Thus, as the defaulters are guilty of having wanted to win too much, very little sympathy is felt as a rule for the misfortunes brought about by the coalition of the Nucingens. If a speculator blows his brains out, if a stockbroker bolts, if a lawyer makes off with the fortune of a hundred families—which is far worse than killing a man—if a banker is insolvent, all these catastrophes are forgotten in Paris in few months, and buried under the oceanic surges of the great city.
The colossal fortunes of Jacques Coeur, of the Medici, of the Angos of Dieppe, of the Auffredis of la Rochelle, of the Fuggers, of the Tiepolos, of the Corners, were honestly made long ago by the advantages they had over the ignorance of the people as to the sources of precious products; but nowadays geographical information has reached the masses, and competition has so effectually limited the profits, that every rapidly made fortune is the result of chance, or of a discovery, or of some legalized robbery. The lower grades of mercantile enterprise have retorted on the perfidious dealings of higher commerce, especially during the last ten years, by base adulteration of the raw material. Wherever chemistry is practised, wine is no longer procurable; the vine industry is consequently waning. Manufactured salt is sold to avoid the excise. The tribunals are appalled by this universal dishonesty. In short, French trade is regarded with suspicion by the whole world, and England too is fast being demoralized.
With us the mischief has its origin in the political situation. The Charter proclaimed the reign of Money, and success has become the supreme consideration of an atheistic age. And, indeed, the corruption of the higher ranks is infinitely more hideous, in spite of the dazzling display and specious arguments of wealth, than that ignoble and more personal corruption of the inferior classes, of which certain details lend a comic element—terrible, if you will—to this drama. The Government, always alarmed by a new idea, has banished these materials of modern comedy from the stage. The citizen class, less liberal than Louis XIV., dreads the advent of its Mariage de Figaro, forbids the appearance of a political Tartuffe, and certainly would not allow Turcaret to be represented, for Turcaret is king. Consequently, comedy has to be narrated, and a book is now the weapon—less swift, but no more sure—that writers wield.
In the course of this morning, amid the coming and going of callers, orders to be given, and brief interviews, making Nucingen's private office a sort of financial lobby, one of his stockbrokers announced to him the disappearance of a member of the Company, one of the richest and cleverest too—Jacques Falleix, brother of Martin Falleix, and the successor of Jules Desmarets. Jacques Falleix was stockbroker in ordinary to the house of Nucingen. In concert with du Tillet and the Kellers, the Baron had plotted the ruin of this man in cold blood, as if it had been the killing of a Passover lamb.
"He could not hafe helt on," replied the Baron quietly.
Jacques Falleix had done them immense service in stock-jobbing. During a crisis a few months since he had saved the situation by acting boldly. But to look for gratitude from a money-dealer is as vain as to try to touch the heart of the wolves of the Ukraine in winter.
"Poor fellow!" said the stockbroker. "He so little anticipated such a catastrophe, that he had furnished a little house for his mistress in the Rue Saint-Georges; he has spent one hundred and fifty thousand francs in decorations and furniture. He was so devoted to Madame du Val-Noble! The poor woman must give it all up. And nothing is paid for."
"Goot, goot!" thought Nucingen, "dis is de very chance to make up for vat I hafe lost dis night!—He hafe paid for noting?" he asked his informant.
"Why," said the stockbroker, "where would you find a tradesman so ill informed as to refuse credit to Jacques Falleix? There is a splendid cellar of wine, it would seem. By the way, the house is for sale; he meant to buy it. The lease is in his name.—What a piece of folly! Plate, furniture, wine, carriage-horses, everything will be valued in a lump, and what will the creditors get out of it?"
"Come again to-morrow," said Nucingen. "I shall hafe seen all dat; and if it is not a declared bankruptcy, if tings can be arranged and compromised, I shall tell you to offer some reasonaple price for dat furniture, if I shall buy de lease——"
"That can be managed," said his friend. "If you go there this morning, you will find one of Falleix's partners there with the tradespeople, who want to establish a first claim; but la Val-Noble has their accounts made out to Falleix."
The Baron sent off one of his clerks forthwith to his lawyer. Jacques Falleix had spoken to him about this house, which was worth sixty thousand francs at most, and he wished to be put in possession of it at once, so as to avail himself of the privileges of the householder.
The cashier, honest man, came to inquire whether his master had lost anything by Falleix's bankruptcy.
"On de contrar' mein goot Volfgang, I stant to vin ein hundert tousant francs."
"How vas dat?"
"Vell, I shall hafe de little house vat dat poor Teufel Falleix should furnish for his mis'ess this year. I shall hafe all dat for fifty tousant franc to de creditors; and my notary, Maitre Cardot, shall hafe my orders to buy de house, for de lan'lord vant de money—I knew dat, but I hat lost mein head. Ver' soon my difine Esther shall life in a little palace. . . . I hafe been dere mit Falleix—it is close to here.—It shall fit me like a glofe."
Falleix's failure required the Baron's presence at the Bourse; but he could not bear to leave his house in the Rue Saint-Lazare without going to the Rue Taitbout; he was already miserable at having been away from Esther for so many hours. He would have liked to keep her at his elbow. The profits he hoped to make out of his stockbrokers' plunder made the former loss of four hundred thousand francs quite easy to endure.
Delighted to announce to his "anchel" that she was to move from the Rue Taitbout to the Rue Saint-Georges, where she was to have "ein little palace" where her memories would no longer rise up in antagonism to their happiness, the pavement felt elastic under his feet; he walked like a young man in a young man's dream. As he turned the corner of the Rue des Trois Freres, in the middle of his dream, and of the road, the Baron beheld Europe coming towards him, looking very much upset.
"Vere shall you go?" he asked.
"Well, monsieur, I was on my way to you. You were quite right yesterday. I see now that poor madame had better have gone to prison for a few days. But how should women understand money matters? When madame's creditors heard that she had come home, they all came down upon us like birds of prey.—Last evening, at seven o'clock, monsieur, men came and stuck terrible posters up to announce a sale of furniture on Saturday—but that is nothing.—Madame, who is all heart, once upon a time to oblige that wretch of a man you know——"
"Well, the man she was in love with, d'Estourny—well, he was charming! He was only a gambler——"
"He gambled with beveled cards!"
"Well—and what do you do at the Bourse?" said Europe. "But let me go on. One day, to hinder Georges, as he said, from blowing out his brains, she pawned all her plate and her jewels, which had never been paid for. Now on hearing that she had given something to one of her creditors, they came in a body and made a scene. They threaten her with the police-court—your angel at that bar! Is it not enough to make a wig stand on end? She is bathed in tears; she talks of throwing herself into the river—and she will do it."
"If I shall go to see her, dat is goot-bye to de Bourse; an' it is impossible but I shall go, for I shall make some money for her—you shall compose her. I shall pay her debts; I shall go to see her at four o'clock. But tell me, Eugenie, dat she shall lofe me a little——"
"A little?—A great deal!—I tell you what, monsieur, nothing but generosity can win a woman's heart. You would, no doubt, have saved a hundred thousand francs or so by letting her go to prison. Well, you would never have won her heart. As she said to me—'Eugenie, he has been noble, grand—he has a great soul.'"
"She hafe said dat, Eugenie?" cried the Baron.
"Yes, monsieur, to me, myself."
"Here—take dis ten louis."
"Thank you.—But she is crying at this moment; she has been crying ever since yesterday as much as a weeping Magdalen could have cried in six months. The woman you love is in despair, and for debts that are not even hers! Oh! men—they devour women as women devour old fogies—there!"
"Dey all is de same!—She hafe pledge' herself.—Vy, no one shall ever pledge herself.—Tell her dat she shall sign noting more.—I shall pay; but if she shall sign something more—I——"
"What will you do?" said Europe with an air.
"Mein Gott! I hafe no power over her.—I shall take de management of her little affairs——Dere, dere, go to comfort her, and you shall say that in ein mont she shall live in a little palace."
"You have invested heavily, Monsieur le Baron, and for large interest, in a woman's heart. I tell you—you look to me younger. I am but a waiting-maid, but I have often seen such a change. It is happiness—happiness gives a certain glow. . . . If you have spent a little money, do not let that worry you; you will see what a good return it will bring. And I said to madame, I told her she would be the lowest of the low, a perfect hussy, if she did not love you, for you have picked her out of hell.—When once she has nothing on her mind, you will see. Between you and me, I may tell you, that night when she cried so much—What is to be said, we value the esteem of the man who maintains us—and she did not dare tell you everything. She wanted to fly."
"To fly!" cried the Baron, in dismay at the notion. "But the Bourse, the Bourse!—Go 'vay, I shall not come in.—But tell her that I shall see her at her window—dat shall gife me courage!"
Esther smiled at Monsieur de Nucingen as he passed the house, and he went ponderously on his way, saying:
"She is ein anchel!"
This was how Europe had succeeded in achieving the impossible. At about half-past two Esther had finished dressing, as she was wont to dress when she expected Lucien; she was looking charming. Seeing this, Prudence, looking out of the window, said, "There is monsieur!"
The poor creature flew to the window, thinking she would see Lucien; she saw Nucingen.
"Oh! how cruelly you hurt me!" she said.
"There is no other way of getting you to seem to be gracious to a poor old man, who, after all, is going to pay your debts," said Europe. "For they are all to be paid."
"What debts?" said the girl, who only cared to preserve her love, which dreadful hands were scattering to the winds.
"Those which Monsieur Carlos made in your name."
"Why, here are nearly four hundred and fifty thousand francs," cried Esther.
"And you owe a hundred and fifty thousand more. But the Baron took it all very well.—He is going to remove you from hence, and place you in a little palace.—On my honor, you are not so badly off. In your place, as you have got on the right side of this man, as soon as Carlos is satisfied, I should make him give me a house and a settled income. You are certainly the handsomest woman I ever saw, madame, and the most attractive, but we so soon grow ugly! I was fresh and good-looking, and look at me! I am twenty-three, about the same age as madame, and I look ten years older. An illness is enough.—Well, but when you have a house in Paris and investments, you need never be afraid of ending in the streets."
Esther had ceased to listen to Europe-Eugenie-Prudence Servien. The will of a man gifted with the genius of corruption had thrown Esther back into the mud with as much force as he had used to drag her out of it.
Those who know love in its infinitude know that those who do not accept its virtues do not experience its pleasures. Since the scene in the den in the Rue de Langlade, Esther had utterly forgotten her former existence. She had since lived very virtuously, cloistered by her passion. Hence, to avoid any obstacle, the skilful fiend had been clever enough to lay such a train that the poor girl, prompted by her devotion, had merely to utter her consent to swindling actions already done, or on the point of accomplishment. This subtlety, revealing the mastery of the tempter, also characterized the methods by which he had subjugated Lucien. He created a terrible situation, dug a mine, filled it with powder, and at the critical moment said to his accomplice, "You have only to nod, and the whole will explode!"
Esther of old, knowing only the morality peculiar to courtesans, thought all these attentions so natural, that she measured her rivals only by what they could get men to spend on them. Ruined fortunes are the conduct-stripes of these creatures. Carlos, in counting on Esther's memory, had not calculated wrongly.
These tricks of warfare, these stratagems employed a thousand times, not only by these women, but by spendthrifts too, did not disturb Esther's mind. She felt nothing but her personal degradation; she loved Lucien, she was to be the Baron de Nucingen's mistress "by appointment"; this was all she thought of. The supposed Spaniard might absorb the earnest-money, Lucien might build up his fortune with the stones of her tomb, a single night of pleasure might cost the old banker so many thousand-franc notes more or less, Europe might extract a few hundred thousand francs by more or less ingenious trickery,—none of these things troubled the enamored girl; this alone was the canker that ate into her heart. For five years she had looked upon herself as being as white as an angel. She loved, she was happy, she had never committed the smallest infidelity. This beautiful pure love was now to be defiled.
There was, in her mind, no conscious contrasting of her happy isolated past and her foul future life. It was neither interest nor sentiment that moved her, only an indefinable and all powerful feeling that she had been white and was now black, pure and was now impure, noble and was now ignoble. Desiring to be the ermine, moral taint seemed to her unendurable. And when the Baron's passion had threatened her, she had really thought of throwing herself out of the window. In short, she loved Lucien wholly, and as women very rarely love a man. Women who say they love, who often think they love best, dance, waltz, and flirt with other men, dress for the world, and look for a harvest of concupiscent glances; but Esther, without any sacrifice, had achieved miracles of true love. She had loved Lucien for six years as actresses love and courtesans—women who, having rolled in mire and impurity, thirst for something noble, for the self-devotion of true love, and who practice exclusiveness—the only word for an idea so little known in real life.
Vanished nations, Greece, Rome, and the East, have at all times kept women shut up; the woman who loves should shut herself up. So it may easily be imagined that on quitting the palace of her fancy, where this poem had been enacted, to go to this old man's "little palace," Esther felt heartsick. Urged by an iron hand, she had found herself waist-deep in disgrace before she had time to reflect; but for the past two days she had been reflecting, and felt a mortal chill about her heart.
At the words, "End in the street," she started to her feet and said:
"In the street!—No, in the Seine rather."
"In the Seine? And what about Monsieur Lucien?" said Europe.
This single word brought Esther to her seat again; she remained in her armchair, her eyes fixed on a rosette in the carpet, the fire in her brain drying up her tears.
At four o'clock Nucingen found his angel lost in that sea of meditations and resolutions whereon a woman's spirit floats, and whence she emerges with utterances that are incomprehensible to those who have not sailed it in her convoy.
"Clear your brow, meine Schone," said the Baron, sitting down by her. "You shall hafe no more debts—I shall arrange mit Eugenie, an' in ein mont you shall go 'vay from dese rooms and go to dat little palace.—Vas a pretty hant.—Gife it me dat I shall kiss it." Esther gave him her hand as a dog gives a paw. "Ach, ja! You shall gife de hant, but not de heart, and it is dat heart I lofe!"
The words were spoken with such sincerity of accent, that poor Esther looked at the old man with a compassion in her eyes that almost maddened him. Lovers, like martyrs, feel a brotherhood in their sufferings! Nothing in the world gives such a sense of kindred as community of sorrow.
"Poor man!" said she, "he really loves."
As he heard the words, misunderstanding their meaning, the Baron turned pale, the blood tingled in his veins, he breathed the airs of heaven. At his age a millionaire, for such a sensation, will pay as much gold as a woman can ask.
"I lofe you like vat I lofe my daughter," said he. "An' I feel dere"—and he laid her hand over his heart—"dat I shall not bear to see you anyting but happy."
"If you would only be a father to me, I would love you very much; I would never leave you; and you would see that I am not a bad woman, not grasping or greedy, as I must seem to you now——"
"You hafe done some little follies," said the Baron, "like all dose pretty vomen—dat is all. Say no more about dat. It is our pusiness to make money for you. Be happy! I shall be your fater for some days yet, for I know I must make you accustom' to my old carcase."
"Really!" she exclaimed, springing on to Nucingen's knees, and clinging to him with her arm round his neck.
"Really!" repeated he, trying to force a smile.
She kissed his forehead; she believed in an impossible combination—she might remain untouched and see Lucien.
She was so coaxing to the banker that she was La Torpille once more. She fairly bewitched the old man, who promised to be a father to her for forty days. Those forty days were to be employed in acquiring and arranging the house in the Rue Saint-Georges.
When he was in the street again, as he went home, the Baron said to himself, "I am an old flat."
But though in Esther's presence he was a mere child, away from her he resumed his lynx's skin; just as the gambler (in le Joueur) becomes affectionate to Angelique when he has not a liard.
"A half a million francs I hafe paid, and I hafe not yet seen vat her leg is like.—Dat is too silly! but, happily, nobody shall hafe known it!" said he to himself three weeks after.
And he made great resolutions to come to the point with the woman who had cost him so dear; then, in Esther's presence once more, he spent all the time he could spare her in making up for the roughness of his first words.
"After all," said he, at the end of a month, "I cannot be de fater eternal!"