What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 6
We all live in a sphere of some kind, and the inhabitants of every sphere are endowed with an equal share of curiosity.
Next evening at the opera, Esther's reappearance was the great news behind the scenes. Between two and four in the afternoon all Paris in the Champs-Elysees had recognized La Torpille, and knew at last who was the object of the Baron de Nucingen's passion.
"Do you know," Blondet remarked to de Marsay in the greenroom at the opera-house, "that La Torpille vanished the very day after the evening when we saw her here and recognized her in little Rubempre's mistress."
In Paris, as in the provinces, everything is known. The police of the Rue de Jerusalem are not so efficient as the world itself, for every one is a spy on every one else, though unconsciously. Carlos had fully understood the danger of Lucien's position during and after the episode of the Rue Taitbout.
No position can be more dreadful than that in which Madame du Val-Noble now found herself; and the phrase to be on the loose, or, as the French say, left on foot, expresses it perfectly. The recklessness and extravagance of these women precludes all care for the future. In that strange world, far more witty and amusing than might be supposed, only such women as are not gifted with that perfect beauty which time can hardly impair, and which is quite unmistakable—only such women, in short, as can be loved merely as a fancy, ever think of old age and save a fortune. The handsomer they are, the more improvident they are.
"Are you afraid of growing ugly that you are saving money?" was a speech of Florine's to Mariette, which may give a clue to one cause of this thriftlessness.
Thus, if a speculator kills himself, or a spendthrift comes to the end of his resources, these women fall with hideous promptitude from audacious wealth to the utmost misery. They throw themselves into the clutches of the old-clothes buyer, and sell exquisite jewels for a mere song; they run into debt, expressly to keep up a spurious luxury, in the hope of recovering what they have lost—a cash-box to draw upon. These ups and downs of their career account for the costliness of such connections, generally brought about as Asie had hooked (another word of her vocabulary) Nucingen for Esther.
And so those who know their Paris are quite aware of the state of affairs when, in the Champs-Elysees—that bustling and mongrel bazaar—they meet some woman in a hired fly whom six months or a year before they had seen in a magnificent and dazzling carriage, turned out in the most luxurious style.
"If you fall on Sainte-Pelagie, you must contrive to rebound on the Bois de Boulogne," said Florine, laughing with Blondet over the little Vicomte de Portenduere.
Some clever women never run the risk of this contrast. They bury themselves in horrible furnished lodgings, where they expiate their extravagance by such privations as are endured by travelers lost in a Sahara; but they never take the smallest fancy for economy. They venture forth to masked balls; they take journeys into the provinces; they turn out well dressed on the boulevards when the weather is fine. And then they find in each other the devoted kindness which is known only among proscribed races. It costs a woman in luck no effort to bestow some help, for she says to herself, "I may be in the same plight by Sunday!"
However, the most efficient protector still is the purchaser of dress. When this greedy money-lender finds herself the creditor, she stirs and works on the hearts of all the old men she knows in favor of the mortgaged creature in thin boots and a fine bonnet.
In this way Madame du Val-Noble, unable to foresee the downfall of one of the richest and cleverest of stockbrokers, was left quite unprepared. She had spent Falleix's money on her whims, and trusted to him for all necessaries and to provide for the future.
"How could I have expected such a thing in a man who seemed such a good fellow?"
In almost every class of society the good fellow is an open-handed man, who will lend a few crowns now and again without expecting them back, who always behaves in accordance with a certain code of delicate feeling above mere vulgar, obligatory, and commonplace morality. Certain men, regarded as virtuous and honest, have, like Nucingen, ruined their benefactors; and certain others, who have been through a criminal court, have an ingenious kind of honesty towards women. Perfect virtue, the dream of Moliere, an Alceste, is exceedingly rare; still, it is to be found everywhere, even in Paris. The "good fellow" is the product of a certain facility of nature which proves nothing. A man is a good fellow, as a cat is silky, as a slipper is made to slip on to the foot. And so, in the meaning given to the word by a kept woman, Falleix ought to have warned his mistress of his approaching bankruptcy and have given her enough to live upon.
D'Estourny, the dashing swindler, was a good fellow; he cheated at cards, but he had set aside thirty thousand francs for his mistress. And at carnival suppers women would retort on his accusers: "No matter. You may say what you like, Georges was a good fellow; he had charming manners, he deserved a better fate."
These girls laugh laws to scorn, and adore a certain kind of generosity; they sell themselves, as Esther had done, for a secret ideal, which is their religion.
After saving a few jewels from the wreck with great difficulty, Madame du Val-Noble was crushed under the burden of the horrible report: "She ruined Falleix." She was almost thirty; and though she was in the prime of her beauty, still she might be called an old woman, and all the more so because in such a crisis all a woman's rivals are against her. Mariette, Florine, Tullia would ask their friend to dinner, and gave her some help; but as they did not know the extent of her debts, they did not dare to sound the depths of that gulf. An interval of six years formed rather too long a gap in the ebb and flow of the Paris tide, between La Torpille and Madame du Val-Noble, for the woman "on foot" to speak to the woman in her carriage; but La Val-Noble knew that Esther was too generous not to remember sometimes that she had, as she said, fallen heir to her possessions, and not to seek her out by some meeting which might seem accidental though arranged. To bring about such an accident, Madame du Val-Noble, dressed in the most lady-like way, walked out every day in the Champs-Elysees on the arm of Theodore Gaillard, who afterwards married her, and who, in these straits, behaved very well to his former mistress, giving her boxes at the play, and inviting her to every spree. She flattered herself that Esther, driving out one fine day, would meet her face to face.
Esther's coachman was Paccard—for her household had been made up in five days by Asie, Europe, and Paccard under Carlos' instructions, and in such a way that the house in the Rue Saint-Georges was an impregnable fortress.
Peyrade, on his part, prompted by deep hatred, by the thirst for vengeance, and, above all, by his wish to see his darling Lydie married, made the Champs-Elysees the end of his walks as soon as he heard from Contenson that Monsieur de Nucingen's mistress might be seen there. Peyrade could dress so exactly like an Englishman, and spoke French so perfectly with the mincing accent that the English give the language; he knew England itself so well, and was so familiar with all the customs of the country, having been sent to England by the police authorities three times between 1779 and 1786, that he could play his part in London and at ambassadors' residences without awaking suspicion. Peyrade, who had some resemblance to Musson the famous juggler, could disguise himself so effectually that once Contenson did not recognize him.
Followed by Contenson dressed as a mulatto, Peyrade examined Esther and her servants with an eye which, seeming heedless, took everything in. Hence it quite naturally happened that in the side alley where the carriage-company walk in fine dry weather, he was on the spot one day when Esther met Madame du Val-Noble. Peyrade, his mulatto in livery at his heels, was airing himself quite naturally, like a nabob who is thinking of no one but himself, in a line with the two women, so as to catch a few words of their conversation.
"Well, my dear child," said Esther to Madame du Val-Noble, "come and see me. Nucingen owes it to himself not to leave his stockbroker's mistress without a sou——"
"All the more so because it is said that he ruined Falleix," remarked Theodore Gaillard, "and that we have every right to squeeze him."
"He dines with me to-morrow," said Esther; "come and meet him." Then she added in an undertone:
"I can do what I like with him, and as yet he has not that!" and she put the nail of a gloved finger under the prettiest of her teeth with the click that is familiarly known to express with peculiar energy: "Just nothing."
"You have him safe——"
"My dear, as yet he has only paid my debts."
"How mean!" cried Suzanne du Val-Noble.
"Oh!" said Esther, "I had debts enough to frighten a minister of finance. Now, I mean to have thirty thousand a year before the first stroke of midnight. Oh! he is excellent, I have nothing to complain of. He does it well.—In a week we give a house-warming; you must come.—That morning he is to make me a present of the lease of the house in the Rue Saint-Georges. In decency, it is impossible to live in such a house on less than thirty thousand francs a year—of my own, so as to have them safe in case of accident. I have known poverty, and I want no more of it. There are certain acquaintances one has had enough of at once."
"And you, who used to say, 'My face is my fortune!'—How you have changed!" exclaimed Suzanne.
"It is the air of Switzerland; you grow thrifty there.—Look here; go there yourself, my dear! Catch a Swiss, and you may perhaps catch a husband, for they have not yet learned what such women as we are can be. And, at any rate, you may come back with a passion for investments in the funds—a most respectable and elegant passion!—Good-bye."
Esther got into her carriage again, a handsome carriage drawn by the finest pair of dappled gray horses at that time to be seen in Paris.
"The woman who is getting into the carriage is handsome," said Peyrade to Contenson, "but I like the one who is walking best; follow her, and find out who she is."
"That is what that Englishman has just remarked in English," said Theodore Gaillard, repeating Peyrade's remark to Madame du Val-Noble.
Before making this speech in English, Peyrade had uttered a word or two in that language, which had made Theodore look up in a way that convinced him that the journalist understood English.
Madame du Val-Noble very slowly made her way home to very decent furnished rooms in the Rue Louis-le-Grand, glancing round now and then to see if the mulatto were following her.
This establishment was kept by a certain Madame Gerard, whom Suzanne had obliged in the days of her splendor, and who showed her gratitude by giving her a suitable home. This good soul, an honest and virtuous citizen, even pious, looked on the courtesan as a woman of a superior order; she had always seen her in the midst of luxury, and thought of her as a fallen queen; she trusted her daughters with her; and—which is a fact more natural than might be supposed—the courtesan was as scrupulously careful in taking them to the play as their mother could have been, and the two Gerard girls loved her. The worthy, kind lodging-house keeper was like those sublime priests who see in these outlawed women only a creature to be saved and loved.
Madame du Val-Noble respected this worth; and often, as she chatted with the good woman, she envied her while bewailing her own ill-fortune.
"Your are still handsome; you may make a good end yet," Madame Gerard would say.
But, indeed, Madame du Val-Noble was only relatively impoverished. This woman's wardrobe, so extravagant and elegant, was still sufficiently well furnished to allow of her appearing on occasion—as on that evening at the Porte-Saint-Martin to see Richard Darlington—in much splendor. And Madame Gerard would most good-naturedly pay for the cabs needed by the lady "on foot" to go out to dine, or to the play, and to come home again.
"Well, dear Madame Gerard," said she to this worthy mother, "my luck is about to change, I believe."
"Well, well, madame, so much the better. But be prudent; do not run into debt any more. I have such difficulty in getting rid of the people who are hunting for you."
"Oh, never worry yourself about those hounds! They have all made no end of money out of me.—Here are some tickets for the Varietes for your girls—a good box on the second tier. If any one should ask for me this evening before I come in, show them up all the same. Adele, my old maid, will be here; I will send her round."
Madame du Val-Noble, having neither mother nor aunt, was obliged to have recourse to her maid—equally on foot—to play the part of a Saint-Esteve with the unknown follower whose conquest was to enable her to rise again in the world. She went to dine with Theodore Gaillard, who, as it happened, had a spree on that day, that is to say, a dinner given by Nathan in payment of a bet he had lost, one of those orgies when a man says to his guests, "You can bring a woman."
It was not without strong reasons that Peyrade had made up his mind to rush in person on to the field of this intrigue. At the same time, his curiosity, like Corentin's, was so keenly excited, that, even in the absence of reasons, he would have tried to play a part in the drama.
At this moment Charles X.'s policy had completed its last evolution. After confiding the helm of State to Ministers of his own choosing, the King was preparing to conquer Algiers, and to utilize the glory that should accrue as a passport to what has been called his Coup d'Etat. There were no more conspiracies at home; Charles X. believed he had no domestic enemies. But in politics, as at sea, a calm may be deceptive.
Thus Corentin had lapsed into total idleness. In such a case a true sportsman, to keep his hand in, for lack of larks kills sparrows. Domitian, we know, for lack of Christians, killed flies. Contenson, having witnessed Esther's arrest, had, with the keen instinct of a spy, fully understood the upshot of the business. The rascal, as we have seen, did not attempt to conceal his opinion of the Baron de Nucingen.
"Who is benefiting by making the banker pay so dear for his passion?" was the first question the allies asked each other. Recognizing Asie as a leader in the piece, Contenson hoped to find out the author through her; but she slipped through his fingers again and again, hiding like an eel in the mud of Paris; and when he found her again as the cook in Esther's establishment, it seemed to him inexplicable that the half-caste woman should have had a finger in the pie. Thus, for the first time, these two artistic spies had come on a text that they could not decipher, while suspecting a dark plot to the story.
After three bold attempts on the house in the Rue Taitbout, Contenson still met with absolute dumbness. So long as Esther dwelt there the lodge porter seemed to live in mortal terror. Asie had, perhaps, promised poisoned meat-balls to all the family in the event of any indiscretion.
On the day after Esther's removal, Contenson found this man rather more amenable; he regretted the lady, he said, who had fed him with the broken dishes from her table. Contenson, disguised as a broker, tried to bargain for the rooms, and listened to the porter's lamentations while he fooled him, casting a doubt on all the man said by a questioning "Really?"
"Yes, monsieur, the lady lived here for five years without ever going out, and more by token, her lover, desperately jealous though she was beyond reproach, took the greatest precautions when he came in or went out. And a very handsome young man he was too!"
Lucien was at this time still staying with his sister, Madame Sechard; but as soon as he returned, Contenson sent the porter to the Quai Malaquais to ask Monsieur de Rubempre whether he were willing to part with the furniture left in the rooms lately occupied by Madame van Bogseck. The porter then recognized Lucien as the young widow's mysterious lover, and this was all that Contenson wanted. The deep but suppressed astonishment may be imagined with which Lucien and Carlos received the porter, whom they affected to regard as a madman; they tried to upset his convictions.
Within twenty-four hours Carlos had organized a force which detected Contenson red-handed in the act of espionage. Contenson, disguised as a market-porter, had twice already brought home the provisions purchased in the morning by Asie, and had twice got into the little mansion in the Rue Saint-Georges. Corentin, on his part, was making a stir; but he was stopped short by recognizing the certain identity of Carlos Herrera; for he learned at once that this Abbe, the secret envoy of Ferdinand VII., had come to Paris towards the end of 1823. Still, Corentin thought it worth while to study the reasons which had led the Spaniard to take an interest in Lucien de Rubempre. It was soon clear to him, beyond doubt, that Esther had for five years been Lucien's mistress; so the substitution of the Englishwoman had been effected for the advantage of that young dandy.
Now Lucien had no means; he was rejected as a suitor for Mademoiselle de Grandlieu; and he had just bought up the lands of Rubempre at the cost of a million francs.