What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 4
Towards the end of the month of December 1829, just before installing Esther in the house in the Rue Saint-Georges, the Baron begged du Tillet to take Florine there, that she might see whether everything was suitable to Nucingen's fortune, and if the description of "a little palace" were duly realized by the artists commissioned to make the cage worthy of the bird.
Every device known to luxury before the Revolution of 1830 made this residence a masterpiece of taste. Grindot the architect considered it his greatest achievement as a decorator. The staircase, which had been reconstructed of marble, the judicious use of stucco ornament, textiles, and gilding, the smallest details as much as the general effect, outdid everything of the kind left in Paris from the time of Louis XV.
"This is my dream!—This and virtue!" said Florine with a smile. "And for whom are you spending all this money?"
"For a voman vat is going up there," replied the Baron.
"A way of playing Jupiter?" replied the actress. "And when is she on show?"
"On the day of the house-warming," cried du Tillet.
"Not before dat," said the Baron.
"My word, how we must lace and brush and fig ourselves out," Florine went on. "What a dance the women will lead their dressmakers and hairdressers for that evening's fun!—And when is it to be?"
"Dat is not for me to say."
"What a woman she must be!" cried Florine. "How much I should like to see her!"
"An' so should I," answered the Baron artlessly.
"What! is everything new together—the house, the furniture, and the woman?"
"Even the banker," said du Tillet, "for my old friend seems to me quite young again."
"Well, he must go back to his twentieth year," said Florine; "at any rate, for once."
In the early days of 1830 everybody in Paris was talking of Nucingen's passion and the outrageous splendor of his house. The poor Baron, pointed at, laughed at, and fuming with rage, as may easily be imagined, took it into his head that on the occasion of giving the house-warming he would at the same time get rid of his paternal disguise, and get the price of so much generosity. Always circumvented by "La Torpille," he determined to treat of their union by correspondence, so as to win from her an autograph promise. Bankers have no faith in anything less than a promissory note.
So one morning early in the year he rose early, locked himself into his room, and composed the following letter in very good French; for though he spoke the language very badly, he could write it very well:—
"DEAR ESTHER, the flower of my thoughts and the only joy of my
life, when I told you that I loved you as I love my daughter, I
deceived you, I deceived myself. I only wished to express the
holiness of my sentiments, which are unlike those felt by other
men, in the first place, because I am an old man, and also because
I have never loved till now. I love you so much, that if you cost
me my fortune I should not love you the less.
"Be just! Most men would not, like me, have seen the angel in you;
I have never even glanced at your past. I love you both as I love
my daughter, Augusta, and as I might love my wife, if my wife
could have loved me. Since the only excuse for an old man's love
is that he should be happy, ask yourself if I am not playing a too
ridiculous part. I have taken you to be the consolation and joy of
my declining days. You know that till I die you will be as happy
as a woman can be; and you know, too, that after my death you will
be rich enough to be the envy of many women. In every stroke of
business I have effected since I have had the happiness of your
acquaintance, your share is set apart, and you have a standing
account with Nucingen's bank. In a few days you will move into a
house, which sooner or later, will be your own if you like it.
Now, plainly, will you still receive me then as a father, or will
you make me happy?
"Forgive me for writing so frankly, but when I am with you I lose
all courage; I feel too keenly that you are indeed my mistress. I
have no wish to hurt you; I only want to tell you how much I
suffer, and how hard it is to wait at my age, when every day takes
with it some hopes and some pleasures. Besides, the delicacy of my
conduct is a guarantee of the sincerity of my intentions. Have I
ever behaved as your creditor? You are like a citadel, and I am
not a young man. In answer to my appeals, you say your life is at
stake, and when I hear you, you make me believe it; but here I
sink into dark melancholy and doubts dishonorable to us both. You
seemed to me as sweet and innocent as you are lovely; but you
insist on destroying my convictions. Ask yourself!—You tell me
you bear a passion in your heart, an indomitable passion, but you
refuse to tell me the name of the man you love.—Is this natural?
"You have turned a fairly strong man into an incredibly weak one.
You see what I have come to; I am induced to ask you at the end of
five months what future hope there is for my passion. Again, I
must know what part I am to play at the opening of your house.
Money is nothing to me when it is spent for you; I will not be so
absurd as to make a merit to you of this contempt; but though my
love knows no limits, my fortune is limited, and I care for it
only for your sake. Well, if by giving you everything I possess I
might, as a poor man, win your affection, I would rather be poor
and loved than rich and scorned by you.
"You have altered me so completely, my dear Esther, that no one
knows me; I paid ten thousand francs for a picture by Joseph
Bridau because you told me that he was clever and unappreciated. I
give every beggar I meet five francs in your name. Well, and what
does the poor man ask, who regards himself as your debtor when you
do him the honor of accepting anything he can give you? He asks
only for a hope—and what a hope, good God! Is it not rather the
certainty of never having anything from you but what my passion
may seize? The fire in my heart will abet your cruel deceptions.
You find me ready to submit to every condition you can impose on
my happiness, on my few pleasures; but promise me at least that on
the day when you take possession of your house you will accept the
heart and service of him who, for the rest of his days, must sign
himself your slave,
"FREDERIC DE NUCINGEN."
"Faugh! how he bores me—this money bag!" cried Esther, a courtesan once more. She took a small sheet of notepaper and wrote all over it, as close as it could go, Scribe's famous phrase, which has become a proverb, "Prenez mon ours."
A quarter of an hour later, Esther, overcome by remorse, wrote the following letter:—
"MONSIEUR LE BARON,—
"Pay no heed to the note you have just received from me; I had
relapsed into the folly of my youth. Forgive, monsieur, a poor
girl who ought to be your slave. I never more keenly felt the
degradation of my position than on the day when I was handed over
to you. You have paid; I owe myself to you. There is nothing more
sacred than a debt of dishonor. I have no right to compound it by
throwing myself into the Seine.
"A debt can always be discharged in that dreadful coin which is
good only to the debtor; you will find me yours to command. I will
pay off in one night all the sums for which that fatal hour has
been mortgaged; and I am sure that such an hour with me is worth
millions—all the more because it will be the only one, the last.
I shall then have paid the debt, and may get away from life. A
good woman has a chance of restoration after a fall; but we, the
like of us, fall too low.
"My determination is so fixed that I beg you will keep this letter
in evidence of the cause of death of her who remains, for one day,
Having sent this letter, Esther felt a pang of regret. Ten minutes after she wrote a third note, as follows:—
"Forgive me, dear Baron—it is I once more. I did not mean either
to make game of you or to wound you; I only want you to reflect on
this simple argument: If we were to continue in the position
towards each other of father and daughter, your pleasure would be
small, but it would be enduring. If you insist on the terms of the
bargain, you will live to mourn for me.
"I will trouble you no more: the day when you shall choose
pleasure rather than happiness will have no morrow for me.—Your
On receiving the first letter, the Baron fell into a cold fury such as a millionaire may die of; he looked at himself in the glass and rang the bell.
"An hot bat for mein feet," said he to his new valet.
While he was sitting with his feet in the bath, the second letter came; he read it, and fainted away. He was carried to bed.
When the banker recovered consciousness, Madame de Nucingen was sitting at the foot of the bed.
"The hussy is right!" said she. "Why do you try to buy love? Is it to be bought in the market!—Let me see your letter to her."
The Baron gave her sundry rough drafts he had made; Madame de Nucingen read them, and smiled. Then came Esther's third letter.
"She is a wonderful girl!" cried the Baroness, when she had read it.
"Vat shall I do, montame?" asked the Baron of his wife.
"Wait? But nature is pitiless!" he cried.
"Look here, my dear, you have been admirably kind to me," said Delphine; "I will give you some good advice."
"You are a ver' goot voman," said he. "Ven you hafe any debts I shall pay."
"Your state on receiving these letters touches a woman far more than the spending of millions, or than all the letters you could write, however fine they may be. Try to let her know it, indirectly; perhaps she will be yours! And—have no scruples, she will not die of that," added she, looking keenly at her husband.
But Madame de Nucingen knew nothing whatever of the nature of such women.
"Vat a clefer voman is Montame de Nucingen!" said the Baron to himself when his wife had left him.
Still, the more the Baron admired the subtlety of his wife's counsel, the less he could see how he might act upon it; and he not only felt that he was stupid, but he told himself so.
The stupidity of wealthy men, though it is almost proverbial, is only comparative. The faculties of the mind, like the dexterity of the limbs, need exercise. The dancer's strength is in his feet; the blacksmith's in his arms; the market porter is trained to carry loads; the singer works his larynx; and the pianist hardens his wrist. A banker is practised in business matters; he studies and plans them, and pulls the wires of various interests, just as a playwright trains his intelligence in combining situations, studying his actors, giving life to his dramatic figures.
We should no more look for powers of conversation in the Baron de Nucingen than for the imagery of a poet in the brain of a mathematician. How many poets occur in an age, who are either good prose writers, or as witty in the intercourse of daily life as Madame Cornuel? Buffon was dull company; Newton was never in love; Lord Byron loved nobody but himself; Rousseau was gloomy and half crazy; La Fontaine absent-minded. Human energy, equally distributed, produces dolts, mediocrity in all; unequally bestowed it gives rise to those incongruities to whom the name of Genius is given, and which, if we only could see them, would look like deformities. The same law governs the body; perfect beauty is generally allied with coldness or silliness. Though Pascal was both a great mathematician and a great writer, though Beaumarchais was a good man of business, and Zamet a profound courtier, these rare exceptions prove the general principle of the specialization of brain faculties.
Within the sphere of speculative calculations the banker put forth as much intelligence and skill, finesse and mental power, as a practised diplomatist expends on national affairs. If he were equally remarkable outside his office, the banker would be a great man. Nucingen made one with the Prince de Ligne, with Mazarin or with Diderot, is a human formula that is almost inconceivable, but which has nevertheless been known as Pericles, Aristotle, Voltaire, and Napoleon. The splendor of the Imperial crown must not blind us to the merits of the individual; the Emperor was charming, well informed, and witty.
Monsieur de Nucingen, a banker and nothing more, having no inventiveness outside his business, like most bankers, had no faith in anything but sound security. In matters of art he had the good sense to go, cash in hand, to experts in every branch, and had recourse to the best architect, the best surgeon, the greatest connoisseur in pictures or statues, the cleverest lawyer, when he wished to build a house, to attend to his health, to purchase a work of art or an estate. But as there are no recognized experts in intrigue, no connoisseurs in love affairs, a banker finds himself in difficulties when he is in love, and much puzzled as to the management of a woman. So Nucingen could think of no better method than that he had hitherto pursued—to give a sum of money to some Frontin, male or female, to act and think for him.
Madame de Saint-Esteve alone could carry out the plan imagined by the Baroness. Nucingen bitterly regretted having quarreled with the odious old clothes-seller. However, feeling confident of the attractions of his cash-box and the soothing documents signed Garat, he rang for his man and told him in inquire for the repulsive widow in the Rue Saint-Marc, and desire her to come to see him.
In Paris extremes are made to meet by passion. Vice is constantly binding the rich to the poor, the great to the mean. The Empress consults Mademoiselle Lenormand; the fine gentleman in every age can always find a Ramponneau.
The man returned within two hours.
"Monsieur le Baron," said he, "Madame de Saint-Esteve is ruined."
"Ah! so much de better!" cried the Baron in glee. "I shall hafe her safe den."
"The good woman is given to gambling, it would seem," the valet went on. "And, moreover, she is under the thumb of a third-rate actor in a suburban theatre, whom, for decency's sake, she calls her godson. She is a first-rate cook, it would seem, and wants a place."
"Dose teufel of geniuses of de common people hafe alvays ten vays of making money, and ein dozen vays of spending it," said the Baron to himself, quite unconscious that Panurge had thought the same thing.
He sent his servant off in quest of Madame de Saint-Esteve, who did not come till the next day. Being questioned by Asie, the servant revealed to this female spy the terrible effects of the notes written to Monsieur le Baron by his mistress.
"Monsieur must be desperately in love with the woman," said he in conclusion, "for he was very near dying. For my part, I advised him never to go back to her, for he will be wheedled over at once. A woman who has already cost Monsieur le Baron five hundred thousand francs, they say, without counting what he has spent on the house in the Rue Saint-Georges! But the woman cares for money, and for money only.—As madame came out of monsieur's room, she said with a laugh: 'If this goes on, that slut will make a widow of me!'"
"The devil!" cried Asie; "it will never do to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."
"Monsieur le Baron has no hope now but in you," said the valet.
"Ay! The fact is, I do know how to make a woman go."
"Well, walk in," said the man, bowing to such occult powers.
"Well," said the false Saint-Esteve, going into the sufferer's room with an abject air, "Monsieur le Baron has met with some difficulties? What can you expect! Everybody is open to attack on his weak side. Dear me, I have had my troubles too. Within two months the wheel of Fortune has turned upside down for me. Here I am looking out for a place!—We have neither of us been very wise. If Monsieur le Baron would take me as cook to Madame Esther, I would be the most devoted of slaves. I should be useful to you, monsieur, to keep an eye on Eugenie and madame."
"Dere is no hope of dat," said the Baron. "I cannot succeet in being de master, I am let such a tance as——"
"As a top," Asie put in. "Well, you have made others dance, daddy, and the little slut has got you, and is making a fool of you.—Heaven is just!"
"Just?" said the Baron. "I hafe not sent for you to preach to me——"
"Pooh, my boy! A little moralizing breaks no bones. It is the salt of life to the like of us, as vice is to your bigots.—Come, have you been generous? You have paid her debts?"
"Ja," said the Baron lamentably.
"That is well; and you have taken her things out of pawn, and that is better. But you must see that it is not enough. All this gives her no occupation, and these creatures love to cut a dash——"
"I shall hafe a surprise for her, Rue Saint-Georches—she knows dat," said the Baron. "But I shall not be made a fool of."
"Very well then, let her go."
"I am only afrait dat she shall let me go!" cried the Baron.
"And we want our money's worth, my boy," replied Asie. "Listen to me. We have fleeced the public of some millions, my little friend? Twenty-five millions I am told you possess."
The Baron could not suppress a smile.
"Well, you must let one go."
"I shall let one go, but as soon as I shall let one go, I shall hafe to give still another."
"Yes, I understand, replied Asie. "You will not say B for fear of having to go on to Z. Still, Esther is a good girl——"
"A ver' honest girl," cried the banker. "An' she is ready to submit; but only as in payment of a debt."
"In short, she does not want to be your mistress; she feels an aversion.—Well, and I understand it; the child has always done just what she pleased. When a girl has never known any but charming young men, she cannot take to an old one. You are not handsome; you are as big as Louis XVIII., and rather dull company, as all men are who try to cajole fortune instead of devoting themselves to women.—Well, if you don't think six hundred thousand francs too much," said Asie, "I pledge myself to make her whatever you can wish."
"Six huntert tousant franc!" cried the Baron, with a start. "Esther is to cost me a million to begin with!"
"Happiness is surely worth sixteen hundred thousand francs, you old sinner. You must know, men in these days have certainly spent more than one or two millions on a mistress. I even know women who have cost men their lives, for whom heads have rolled into the basket.—You know the doctor who poisoned his friend? He wanted the money to gratify a woman."
"Ja, I know all dat. But if I am in lofe, I am not ein idiot, at least vile I am here; but if I shall see her, I shall gife her my pocket-book——"
"Well, listen Monsieur le Baron," said Asie, assuming the attitude of a Semiramis. "You have been squeezed dry enough already. Now, as sure as my name is Saint-Esteve—in the way of business, of course—I will stand by you."
"Goot, I shall repay you."
"I believe you, my boy, for I have shown you that I know how to be revenged. Besides, I tell you this, daddy, I know how to snuff out your Madame Esther as you would snuff a candle. And I know my lady! When the little huzzy has once made you happy, she will be even more necessary to you than she is at this moment. You paid me well; you have allowed yourself to be fooled, but, after all, you have forked out.—I have fulfilled my part of the agreement, haven't I? Well, look here, I will make a bargain with you."
"Let me hear."
"You shall get me the place as cook to Madame, engage me for ten years, and pay the last five in advance—what is that? Just a little earnest-money. When once I am about madame, I can bring her to these terms. Of course, you must first order her a lovely dress from Madame Auguste, who knows her style and taste; and order the new carriage to be at the door at four o'clock. After the Bourse closes, go to her rooms and take her for a little drive in the Bois de Boulogne. Well, by that act the woman proclaims herself your mistress; she has advertised herself to the eyes and knowledge of all Paris: A hundred thousand francs.—You must dine with her—I know how to cook such a dinner!—You must take her to the play, to the Varietes, to a stage-box, and then all Paris will say, 'There is that old rascal Nucingen with his mistress.' It is very flattering to know that such things are said.—Well, all this, for I am not grasping, is included for the first hundred thousand francs.—In a week, by such conduct, you will have made some way——"
"But I shall hafe paid ein hundert tousant franc."
"In the course of the second week," Asie went on, as though she had not heard this lamentable ejaculation, "madame, tempted by these preliminaries, will have made up her mind to leave her little apartment and move to the house you are giving her. Your Esther will have seen the world again, have found her old friends; she will wish to shine and do the honors of her palace—it is in the nature of things: Another hundred thousand francs!—By Heaven! you are at home there, Esther compromised—she must be yours. The rest is a mere trifle, in which you must play the principal part, old elephant. (How wide the monster opens his eyes!) Well, I will undertake that too: Four hundred thousand—and that, my fine fellow, you need not pay till the day after. What do you think of that for honesty? I have more confidence in you than you have in me. If I persuade madame to show herself as your mistress, to compromise herself, to take every gift you offer her,—perhaps this very day, you will believe that I am capable of inducing her to throw open the pass of the Great Saint Bernard. And it is a hard job, I can tell you; it will take as much pulling to get your artillery through as it took the first Consul to get over the Alps."
"Her heart is full of love, old shaver, rasibus, as you say who know Latin," replied Asie. "She thinks herself the Queen of Sheba, because she has washed herself in sacrifices made for her lover—an idea that that sort of woman gets into her head! Well, well, old fellow, we must be just.—It is fine! That baggage would die of grief at being your mistress—I really should not wonder. But what I trust to, and I tell you to give you courage, is that there is good in the girl at bottom."
"You hafe a genius for corruption," said the Baron, who had listened to Asie in admiring silence, "just as I hafe de knack of de banking."
"Then it is settled, my pigeon?" said Asie.
"Done for fifty tousant franc insteat of ein hundert tousant!—An' I shall give you fife hundert tousant de day after my triumph."
"Very good, I will set to work," said Asie. "And you may come, monsieur," she added respectfully. "You will find madame as soft already as a cat's back, and perhaps inclined to make herself pleasant."
"Go, go, my goot voman," said the banker, rubbing his hands.
And after seeing the horrible mulatto out of the house, he said to himself:
"How vise it is to hafe much money."
He sprang out of bed, went down to his office, and resumed the conduct of his immense business with a light heart.