What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 5
Nothing could be more fatal to Esther than the steps taken by Nucingen. The hapless girl, in defending her fidelity, was defending her life. This very natural instinct was what Carlos called prudery. Now Asie, not without taking such precautions as usual in such cases, went off to report to Carlos the conference she had held with the Baron, and all the profit she had made by it. The man's rage, like himself, was terrible; he came forthwith to Esther, in a carriage with the blinds drawn, driving into the courtyard. Still almost white with fury, the double-dyed forger went straight into the poor girl's room; she looked at him—she was standing up—and she dropped on to a chair as though her legs had snapped.
"What is the matter, monsieur?" said she, quaking in every limb.
"Leave us, Europe," said he to the maid.
Esther looked at the woman as a child might look at its mother, from whom some assassin had snatched it to murder it.
"Do you know where you will send Lucien?" Carlos went on when he was alone with Esther.
"Where?" asked she in a low voice, venturing to glance at her executioner.
"Where I come from, my beauty." Esther, as she looked at the man, saw red. "To the hulks," he added in an undertone.
Esther shut her eyes and stretched herself out, her arms dropped, and she turned white. The man rang, and Prudence appeared.
"Bring her round," he said coldly; "I have not done."
He walked up and down the drawing-room while waiting. Prudence-Europe was obliged to come and beg monsieur to lift Esther on to the bed; he carried her with the ease that betrayed athletic strength.
They had to procure all the chemist's strongest stimulants to restore Esther to a sense of her woes. An hour later the poor girl was able to listen to this living nightmare, seated at the foot of her bed, his eyes fixed and glowing like two spots of molten lead.
"My little sweetheart," said he, "Lucien now stands between a splendid life, honored, happy, and respected, and the hole full of water, mud, and gravel into which he was going to plunge when I met him. The house of Grandlieu requires of the dear boy an estate worth a million francs before securing for him the title of Marquis, and handing over to him that may-pole named Clotilde, by whose help he will rise to power. Thanks to you, and me, Lucien has just purchased his maternal manor, the old Chateau de Rubempre, which, indeed, did not cost much—thirty thousand francs; but his lawyer, by clever negotiations, has succeeded in adding to it estates worth a million, on which three hundred thousand francs are paid. The chateau, the expenses, and percentages to the men who were put forward as a blind to conceal the transaction from the country people, have swallowed up the remainder.
"We have, to be sure, a hundred thousand francs invested in a business here, which a few months hence will be worth two to three hundred thousand francs; but there will still be four hundred thousand francs to be paid.
"In three days Lucien will be home from Angouleme, where he has been, because he must not be suspected of having found a fortune in remaking your bed——"
"Oh no!" cried she, looking up with a noble impulse.
"I ask you, then, is this a moment to scare off the Baron?" he went on calmly. "And you very nearly killed him the day before yesterday; he fainted like a woman on reading your second letter. You have a fine style—I congratulate you! If the Baron had died, where should we be now?—When Lucien walks out of Saint-Thomas d'Aquin son-in-law to the Duc de Grandlieu, if you want to try a dip in the Seine——Well, my beauty, I offer you my hand for a dive together. It is one way of ending matters.
"But consider a moment. Would it not be better to live and say to yourself again and again 'This fine fortune, this happy family'—for he will have children—children!—Have you ever thought of the joy of running your fingers through the hair of his children?"
Esther closed her eyes with a little shiver.
"Well, as you gaze on that structure of happiness, you may say to yourself, 'This is my doing!'"
There was a pause, and the two looked at each other.
"This is what I have tried to make out of such despair as saw no issue but the river," said Carlos. "Am I selfish? That is the way to love! Men show such devotion to none but kings! But I have anointed Lucien king. If I were riveted for the rest of my days to my old chain, I fancy I could stay there resigned so long as I could say, 'He is gay, he is at Court.' My soul and mind would triumph, while my carcase was given over to the jailers! You are a mere female; you love like a female! But in a courtesan, as in all degraded creatures, love should be a means to motherhood, in spite of Nature, which has stricken you with barrenness!
"If ever, under the skin of the Abbe Carlos Herrera, any one were to detect the convict I have been, do you know what I would do to avoid compromising Lucien?"
Esther awaited the reply with some anxiety.
"Well," he said after a brief pause, "I would die as the Negroes do—without a word. And you, with all your airs will put folks on my traces. What did I require of you?—To be La Torpille again for six months—for six weeks; and to do it to clutch a million.
"Lucien will never forget you. Men do not forget the being of whom they are reminded day after day by the joy of awaking rich every morning. Lucien is a better fellow than you are. He began by loving Coralie. She died—good; but he had not enough money to bury her; he did not do as you did just now, he did not faint, though he is a poet; he wrote six rollicking songs, and earned three hundred francs, with which he paid for Coralie's funeral. I have those songs; I know them by heart. Well, then do you too compose your songs: be cheerful, be wild, be irresistible and—insatiable! You hear me?—Do not let me have to speak again.
"Kiss papa. Good-bye."
When, half an hour after, Europe went into her mistress' room, she found her kneeling in front of a crucifix, in the attitude which the most religious of painters has given to Moses before the burning bush on Horeb, to depict his deep and complete adoration of Jehovah. After saying her prayers, Esther had renounced her better life, the honor she had created for herself, her glory, her virtue, and her love.
"Oh, madame, you will never look like that again!" cried Prudence Servien, struck by her mistress' sublime beauty.
She hastily turned the long mirror so that the poor girl should see herself. Her eyes still had a light as of the soul flying heavenward. The Jewess' complexion was brilliant. Sparkling with tears unshed in the fervor of prayer, her eyelashes were like leaves after a summer shower, for the last time they shone with the sunshine of pure love. Her lips seemed to preserve an expression as of her last appeal to the angels, whose palm of martyrdom she had no doubt borrowed while placing in their hands her past unspotted life. And she had the majesty which Mary Stuart must have shown at the moment when she bid adieu to her crown, to earth, and to love.
"I wish Lucien could have seen me thus!" she said with a smothered sigh. "Now," she added, in a strident tone, "now for a fling!"
Europe stood dumb at hearing the words, as though she had heard an angel blaspheme.
"Well, why need you stare at me to see if I have cloves in my mouth instead of teeth? I am nothing henceforth but a vile, foul creature, a thief—and I expect milord. So get me a hot bath, and put my dress out. It is twelve o'clock; the Baron will look in, no doubt, when the Bourse closes; I shall tell him I was waiting for him, and Asie is to prepare us dinner, first-chop, mind you; I mean to turn the man's brain.—Come, hurry, hurry, my girl; we are going to have some fun—that is to say, we must go to work."
She sat down at the table and wrote the following note:—
"MY FRIEND,—If the cook you have sent me had not already been in
my service, I might have thought that your purpose was to let me
know how often you had fainted yesterday on receiving my three
notes. (What can I say? I was very nervous that day; I was
thinking over the memories of my miserable existence.) But I know
how sincere Asie is. Still, I cannot repent of having caused you
so much pain, since it has availed to prove to me how much you
love me. This is how we are made, we luckless and despised
creatures; true affection touches us far more deeply than finding
ourselves the objects of lavish liberality. For my part, I have
always rather dreaded being a peg on which you would hang your
vanities. It annoyed me to be nothing else to you. Yes, in spite
of all your protestations, I fancied you regarded me merely as a
woman paid for.
"Well, you will now find me a good girl, but on condition of your
always obeying me a little.
"If this letter can in any way take the place of the doctor's
prescription, prove it by coming to see me after the Bourse
closes. You will find me in full fig, dressed in your gifts, for I
am for life your pleasure-machine,
At the Bourse the Baron de Nucingen was so gay, so cheerful, seemed so easy-going, and allowed himself so many jests, that du Tillet and the Kellers, who were on 'change, could not help asking him the reason of his high spirits.
"I am belofed. Ve shall soon gife dat house-varming," he told du Tillet.
"And how much does it cost you?" asked Francois Keller rudely—it was said that he had spent twenty-five thousand francs a year on Madame Colleville.
"Dat voman is an anchel! She never has ask' me for one sou."
"They never do," replied du Tillet. "And it is to avoid asking that they have always aunts or mothers."
Between the Bourse and the Rue Taitbout seven times did the Baron say to his servant:
"You go so slow—vip de horse!"
He ran lightly upstairs, and for the first time he saw his mistress in all the beauty of such women, who have no other occupation than the care of their person and their dress. Just out of her bath the flower was quite fresh, and perfumed so as to inspire desire in Robert d'Arbrissel.
Esther was in a charming toilette. A dress of black corded silk trimmed with rose-colored gimp opened over a petticoat of gray satin, the costume subsequently worn by Amigo, the handsome singer, in I Puritani. A Honiton lace kerchief fell or floated over her shoulders. The sleeves of her gown were strapped round with cording to divide the puffs, which for some little time fashion has substituted for the large sleeves which had grown too monstrous. Esther had fastened a Mechlin lace cap on her magnificent hair with a pin, a la folle, as it is called, ready to fall, but not really falling, giving her an appearance of being tumbled and in disorder, though the white parting showed plainly on her little head between the waves of her hair.
"Is it not a shame to see madame so lovely in a shabby drawing-room like this?" said Europe to the Baron, as she admitted him.
"Vel, den, come to the Rue Saint-Georches," said the Baron, coming to a full stop like a dog marking a partridge. "The veather is splendit, ve shall drife to the Champs Elysees, and Montame Saint-Estefe and Eugenie shall carry dere all your clo'es an' your linen, an' ve shall dine in de Rue Saint-Georches."
"I will do whatever you please," said Esther, "if only you will be so kind as to call my cook Asie, and Eugenie Europe. I have given those names to all the women who have served me ever since the first two. I do not love change——"
"Asie, Europe! echoed the Baron, laughing. "How ver' droll you are.—You hafe infentions.—I should hafe eaten many dinners before I should hafe call' a cook Asie."
"It is our business to be droll," said Esther. "Come, now, may not a poor girl be fed by Asia and dressed by Europe when you live on the whole world? It is a myth, I say; some women would devour the earth, I only ask for half.—You see?"
"Vat a voman is Montame Saint-Estefe!" said the Baron to himself as he admired Esther's changed demeanor.
"Europe, my girl, I want my bonnet," said Esther. "I must have a black silk bonnet lined with pink and trimmed with lace."
"Madame Thomas has not sent it home.—Come, Monsieur le Baron; quick, off you go! Begin your functions as a man-of-all-work—that is to say, of all pleasure! Happiness is burdensome. You have your carriage here, go to Madame Thomas," said Europe to the Baron. "Make your servant ask for the bonnet for Madame van Bogseck.—And, above all," she added in his ear, "bring her the most beautiful bouquet to be had in Paris. It is winter, so try to get tropical flowers."
The Baron went downstairs and told his servants to go to "Montame Thomas."
The coachman drove to a famous pastrycook's.
"She is a milliner, you damn' idiot, and not a cake-shop!" cried the Baron, who rushed off to Madame Prevot's in the Palais-Royal, where he had a bouquet made up for the price of ten louis, while his man went to the great modiste.
A superficial observer, walking about Paris, wonders who the fools can be that buy the fabulous flowers that grace the illustrious bouquetiere's shop window, and the choice products displayed by Chevet of European fame—the only purveyor who can vie with the Rocher de Cancale in a real and delicious Revue des deux Mondes.
Well, every day in Paris a hundred or more passions a la Nucingen come into being, and find expression in offering such rarities as queens dare not purchase, presented, kneeling, to baggages who, to use Asie's word, like to cut a dash. But for these little details, a decent citizen would be puzzled to conceive how a fortune melts in the hands of these women, whose social function, in Fourier's scheme, is perhaps to rectify the disasters caused by avarice and cupidity. Such squandering is, no doubt, to the social body what a prick of the lancet is to a plethoric subject. In two months Nucingen had shed broadcast on trade more than two hundred thousand francs.
By the time the old lover returned, darkness was falling; the bouquet was no longer of any use. The hour for driving in the Champs-Elysees in winter is between two and four. However, the carriage was of use to convey Esther from the Rue Taitbout to the Rue Saint-Georges, where she took possession of the "little palace." Never before had Esther been the object of such worship or such lavishness, and it amazed her; but, like all royal ingrates, she took care to express no surprise.
When you go into St. Peter's at Rome, to enable you to appreciate the extent and height of this queen of cathedrals, you are shown the little finger of a statue which looks of a natural size, and which measures I know not how much. Descriptions have been so severely criticised, necessary as they are to a history of manners, that I must here follow the example of the Roman Cicerone. As they entered the dining-room, the Baron could not resist asking Esther to feel the stuff of which the window curtains were made, draped with magnificent fulness, lined with white watered silk, and bordered with a gimp fit to trim a Portuguese princess' bodice. The material was silk brought from Canton, on which Chinese patience had painted Oriental birds with a perfection only to be seen in mediaeval illuminations, or in the Missal of Charles V., the pride of the Imperial library at Vienna.
"It hafe cost two tousand franc' an ell for a milord who brought it from Intia——"
"It is very nice, charming," said Esther. "How I shall enjoy drinking champagne here; the froth will not get dirty here on a bare floor."
"Oh! madame!" cried Europe, "only look at the carpet!"
"Dis carpet hafe been made for de Duc de Torlonia, a frient of mine, who fount it too dear, so I took it for you who are my qveen," said Nucingen.
By chance this carpet, by one of our cleverest designers, matched with the whimsicalities of the Chinese curtains. The walls, painted by Schinner and Leon de Lora, represented voluptuous scenes, in carved ebony frames, purchased for their weight in gold from Dusommerard, and forming panels with a narrow line of gold that coyly caught the light.
From this you may judge of the rest.
"You did well to bring me here," said Esther. "It will take me a week to get used to my home and not to look like a parvenu in it——"
"My home! Den you shall accept it?" cried the Baron in glee.
"Why, of course, and a thousand times of course, stupid animal," said she, smiling.
"Animal vas enough——"
"Stupid is a term of endearment," said she, looking at him.
The poor man took Esther's hand and pressed it to his heart. He was animal enough to feel, but too stupid to find words.
"Feel how it beats—for ein little tender vort——"
And he conducted his goddess to her room.
"Oh, madame, I cannot stay here!" cried Eugenie. "It makes me long to go to bed."
"Well," said Esther, "I mean to please the magician who has worked all these wonders.—Listen, my fat elephant, after dinner we will go to the play together. I am starving to see a play."
It was just five years since Esther had been to a theatre. All Paris was rushing at that time to the Porte-Saint-Martin, to see one of those pieces to which the power of the actors lends a terrible expression of reality, Richard Darlington. Like all ingenuous natures, Esther loved to feel the thrills of fear as much as to yield to tears of pathos.
"Let us go to see Frederick Lemaitre," said she; "he is an actor I adore."
"It is a horrible piece," said Nucingen foreseeing the moment when he must show himself in public.
He sent his servant to secure one of the two stage-boxes on the grand tier.—And this is another strange feature of Paris. Whenever success, on feet of clay, fills a house, there is always a stage-box to be had ten minutes before the curtain rises. The managers keep it for themselves, unless it happens to be taken for a passion a la Nucingen. This box, like Chevet's dainties, is a tax levied on the whims of the Parisian Olympus.
It would be superfluous to describe the plate and china. Nucingen had provided three services of plate—common, medium, and best; and the best—plates, dishes, and all, was of chased silver gilt. The banker, to avoid overloading the table with gold and silver, had completed the array of each service with porcelain of exquisite fragility in the style of Dresden china, which had cost more than the plate. As to the linen—Saxony, England, Flanders, and France vied in the perfection of flowered damask.
At dinner it was the Baron's turn to be amazed on tasting Asie's cookery.
"I understant," said he, "vy you call her Asie; dis is Asiatic cooking."
"I begin to think he loves me," said Esther to Europe; "he has said something almost like a bon mot."
"I said many vorts," said he.
"Well! he is more like Turcaret than I had heard he was!" cried the girl, laughing at this reply, worthy of the many artless speeches for which the banker was famous.
The dishes were so highly spiced as to give the Baron an indigestion, on purpose that he might go home early; so this was all he got in the way of pleasure out of his first evening with Esther. At the theatre he was obliged to drink an immense number of glasses of eau sucree, leaving Esther alone between the acts.
By a coincidence so probable that it can scarcely be called chance, Tullia, Mariette, and Madame du Val-Noble were at the play that evening. Richard Darlington enjoyed a wild success—and a deserved success—such as is seen only in Paris. The men who saw this play all came to the conclusion that a lawful wife might be thrown out of window, and the wives loved to see themselves unjustly persecuted.
The women said to each other: "This is too much! we are driven to it—but it often happens!"
Now a woman as beautiful as Esther, and dressed as Esther was, could not show off with impunity in a stage-box at the Porte-Saint-Martin. And so, during the second act, there was quite a commotion in the box where the two dancers were sitting, caused by the undoubted identity of the unknown fair one with La Torpille.
"Heyday! where has she dropped from?" said Mariette to Madame du Val-Noble. "I thought she was drowned."
"But is it she? She looks to me thirty-seven times younger and handsomer than she was six years ago."
"Perhaps she has preserved herself in ice like Madame d'Espard and Madame Zayonchek," said the Comte de Brambourg, who had brought the three women to the play, to a pit-tier box. "Isn't she the 'rat' you meant to send me to hocus my uncle?" said he, addressing Tullia.
"The very same," said the singer. "Du Bruel, go down to the stalls and see if it is she."
"What brass she has got!" exclaimed Madame du Val-Noble, using an expressive but vulgar phrase.
"Oh!" said the Comte de Brambourg, "she very well may. She is with my friend the Baron de Nucingen—I will go——"
"Is that the immaculate Joan of Arc who has taken Nucingen by storm, and who has been talked of till we are all sick of her, these three months past?" asked Mariette.
"Good-evening, my dear Baron," said Philippe Bridau, as he went into Nucingen's box. "So here you are, married to Mademoiselle Esther.—Mademoiselle, I am an old officer whom you once on a time were to have got out of a scrape—at Issoudun—Philippe Bridau——"
"I know nothing of it," said Esther, looking round the house through her opera-glasses.
"Dis lady," said the Baron, "is no longer known as 'Esther' so short! She is called Montame de Champy—ein little estate vat I have bought for her——"
"Though you do things in such style," said the Comte, "these ladies are saying that Madame de Champy gives herself too great airs.—If you do not choose to remember me, will you condescend to recognize Mariette, Tullia, Madame du Val-Noble?" the parvenu went on—a man for whom the Duc de Maufrigneuse had won the Dauphin's favor.
"If these ladies are kind to me, I am willing to make myself pleasant to them," replied Madame de Champy drily.
"Kind! Why, they are excellent; they have named you Joan of Arc," replied Philippe.
"Vell den, if dese ladies vill keep you company," said Nucingen, "I shall go 'vay, for I hafe eaten too much. Your carriage shall come for you and your people.—Dat teufel Asie!"
"The first time, and you leave me alone!" said Esther. "Come, come, you must have courage enough to die on deck. I must have my man with me as I go out. If I were insulted, am I to cry out for nothing?"
The old millionaire's selfishness had to give way to his duties as a lover. The Baron suffered but stayed.
Esther had her own reasons for detaining "her man." If she admitted her acquaintance, she would be less closely questioned in his presence than if she were alone. Philippe Bridau hurried back to the box where the dancers were sitting, and informed them of the state of affairs.
"Oh! so it is she who has fallen heir to my house in the Rue Saint-Georges," observed Madame du Val-Noble with some bitterness; for she, as she phrased it, was on the loose.
"Most likely," said the Colonel. "Du Tillet told me that the Baron had spent three times as much there as your poor Falleix."
"Let us go round to her box," said Tullia.
"Not if I know it," said Mariette; "she is much too handsome, I will call on her at home."
"I think myself good-looking enough to risk it," remarked Tullia.
So the much-daring leading dancer went round between the acts and renewed acquaintance with Esther, who would talk only on general subjects.
"And where have you come back from, my dear child?" asked Tullia, who could not restrain her curiosity.
"Oh, I was for five years in a castle in the Alps with an Englishman, as jealous as a tiger, a nabob; I called him a nabot, a dwarf, for he was not so big as le bailli de Ferrette.
"And then I came across a banker—from a savage to salvation, as Florine might say. And now here I am in Paris again; I long so for amusement that I mean to have a rare time. I shall keep open house. I have five years of solitary confinement to make good, and I am beginning to do it. Five years of an Englishman is rather too much; six weeks are the allowance according to the advertisements."
"Was it the Baron who gave you that lace?"
"No, it is a relic of the nabob.—What ill-luck I have, my dear! He was as yellow as a friend's smile at a success; I thought he would be dead in ten months. Pooh! he was a strong as a mountain. Always distrust men who say they have a liver complaint. I will never listen to a man who talks of his liver.—I have had too much of livers—who cannot die. My nabob robbed me; he died without making a will, and the family turned me out of doors like a leper.—So, then, I said to my fat friend here, 'Pay for two!'—You may as well call me Joan of Arc; I have ruined England, and perhaps I shall die at the stake——"
"Of love?" said Tullia.
"And burnt alive," answered Esther, and the question made her thoughtful.
The Baron laughed at all this vulgar nonsense, but he did not always follow it readily, so that his laughter sounded like the forgotten crackers that go off after fireworks.