What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 8
In the evening of this day, when the opposing forces had met face to face on level ground, Lucien spent the evening at the Hotel Grandlieu. The party was a large one. In the face of all the assembly, the Duchess kept Lucien at her side for some time, and was most kind to him.
"You are going away for a little while?" said she.
"Yes, Madame la Duchesse. My sister, in her anxiety to promote my marriage, has made great sacrifices, and I have been enabled to repurchase the lands of the Rubempres, to reconstitute the whole estate. But I have found in my Paris lawyer a very clever man, who has managed to save me from the extortionate terms that the holders would have asked if they had known the name of the purchaser."
"Is there a chateau?" asked Clotilde, with too broad a smile.
"There is something which might be called a chateau; but the wiser plan would be to use the building materials in the construction of a modern residence."
Clotilde's eyes blazed with happiness above her smile of satisfaction.
"You must play a rubber with my father this evening," said she. "In a fortnight I hope you will be asked to dinner."
"Well, my dear sir," said the Duc de Grandlieu, "I am told that you have bought the estate of Rubempre. I congratulate you. It is an answer to those who say you are in debt. We bigwigs, like France or England, are allowed to have a public debt; but men of no fortune, beginners, you see, may not assume that privilege——"
"Indeed, Monsieur le Duc, I still owe five hundred thousand francs on my land."
"Well, well, you must marry a wife who can bring you the money; but you will have some difficulty in finding a match with such a fortune in our Faubourg, where daughters do not get large dowries."
"Their name is enough," said Lucien.
"We are only three wisk players—Maufrigneuse, d'Espard, and I—will you make a fourth?" said the Duke, pointing to the card-table.
Clotilde came to the table to watch her father's game.
"She expects me to believe that she means it for me," said the Duke, patting his daughter's hands, and looking round at Lucien, who remained quite grave.
Lucien, Monsieur d'Espard's partner, lost twenty louis.
"My dear mother," said Clotilde to the Duchess, "he was so judicious as to lose."
At eleven o'clock, after a few affectionate words with Mademoiselle de Grandlieu, Lucien went home and to bed, thinking of the complete triumph he was to enjoy a month hence; for he had not a doubt of being accepted as Clotilde's lover, and married before Lent in 1830.
On the morrow, when Lucien was smoking his cigarettes after breakfast, sitting with Carlos, who had become much depressed, M. de Saint-Esteve was announced—what a touch of irony—who begged to see either the Abbe Carlos Herrera or Monsieur Lucien de Rubempre.
"Was he told downstairs that I had left Paris?" cried the Abbe.
"Yes, sir," replied the groom.
"Well, then, you must see the man," said he to Lucien. "But do not say a single compromising word, do not let a sign of surprise escape you. It is the enemy."
"You will overhear me," said Lucien.
Carlos hid in the adjoining room, and through the crack of the door he saw Corentin, whom he recognized only by his voice, such powers of transformation did the great man possess. This time Corentin looked like an old paymaster-general.
"I have not had the honor of being known to you, monsieur," Corentin began, "but——"
"Excuse my interrupting you, monsieur, but——"
"But the matter in point is your marriage to Mademoiselle Clotilde de Grandlieu—which will never take place," Corentin added eagerly.
Lucien sat down and made no reply.
"You are in the power of a man who is able and willing and ready to prove to the Duc de Grandlieu that the lands of Rubempre are to be paid for with the money that a fool has given to your mistress, Mademoiselle Esther," Corentin went on. "It will be quite easy to find the minutes of the legal opinions in virtue of which Mademoiselle Esther was summoned; there are ways too of making d'Estourny speak. The very clever manoeuvres employed against the Baron de Nucingen will be brought to light.
"As yet all can be arranged. Pay down a hundred thousand francs, and you will have peace.—All this is no concern of mine. I am only the agent of those who levy this blackmail; nothing more."
Corentin might have talked for an hour; Lucien smoked his cigarette with an air of perfect indifference.
"Monsieur," replied he, "I do not want to know who you are, for men who undertake such jobs as these have no name—at any rate, in my vocabulary. I have allowed you to talk at your leisure; I am at home.—You seem to me not bereft of common sense; listen to my dilemma."
There was a pause, during which Lucien met Corentin's cat-like eye fixed on him with a perfectly icy stare.
"Either you are building on facts that are absolutely false, and I need pay no heed to them," said Lucien; "or you are in the right; and in that case, by giving you a hundred thousand francs, I put you in a position to ask me for as many hundred thousand francs as your employer can find Saint-Esteves to ask for.
"However, to put an end, once and for all, to your kind intervention, I would have you know that I, Lucien de Rubempre, fear no one. I have no part in the jobbery of which you speak. If the Grandlieus make difficulties, there are other young ladies of very good family ready to be married. After all, it is no loss to me if I remain single, especially if, as you imagine, I deal in blank bills to such advantage."
"If Monsieur l'Abbe Carlos Herrera——"
"Monsieur," Lucien put in, "the Abbe Herrera is at this moment on the way to Spain. He has nothing to do with my marriage, my interests are no concern of his. That remarkable statesman was good enough to assist me at one time with his advice, but he has reports to present to his Majesty the King of Spain; if you have anything to say to him, I recommend you to set out for Madrid."
"Monsieur," said Corentin plainly, "you will never be Mademoiselle Clotilde de Grandlieu's husband."
"So much the worse for her!" replied Lucien, impatiently pushing Corentin towards the door.
"You have fully considered the matter?" asked Corentin coldly.
"Monsieur, I do not recognize that you have any right either to meddle in my affairs, or to make me waste a cigarette," said Lucien, throwing away his cigarette that had gone out.
"Good-day, monsieur," said Corentin. "We shall not meet again.—But there will certainly be a moment in your life when you would give half your fortune to have called me back from these stairs."
In answer to this threat, Carlos made as though he were cutting off a head.
"Now to business!" cried he, looking at Lucien, who was as white as ashes after this dreadful interview.
If among the small number of my readers who take an interest in the moral and philosophical side of this book there should be only one capable of believing that the Baron de Nucingen was happy, that one would prove how difficult it is to explain the heart of a courtesan by any kind of physiological formula. Esther was resolved to make the poor millionaire pay dearly for what he called his day of triumph. And at the beginning of February 1830 the house-warming party had not yet been given in the "little palace."
"Well," said Esther in confidence to her friends, who repeated it to the Baron, "I shall open house at the Carnival, and I mean to make my man as happy as a cock in plaster."
The phrase became proverbial among women of her kidney.
The Baron gave vent to much lamentation; like married men, he made himself very ridiculous, he began to complain to his intimate friends, and his dissatisfaction was generally known.
Esther, meanwhile, took quite a serious view of her position as the Pompadour of this prince of speculators. She had given two or three small evening parties, solely to get Lucien into the house. Lousteau, Rastignac, du Tillet, Bixiou, Nathan, the Comte de Brambourg—all the cream of the dissipated crew—frequented her drawing-room. And, as leading ladies in the piece she was playing, Esther accepted Tullia, Florentine, Fanny Beaupre, and Florine—two dancers and two actresses—besides Madame du Val-Noble. Nothing can be more dreary than a courtesan's home without the spice of rivalry, the display of dress, and some variety of type.
In six weeks Esther had become the wittiest, the most amusing, the loveliest, and the most elegant of those female pariahs who form the class of kept women. Placed on the pedestal that became her, she enjoyed all the delights of vanity which fascinate women in general, but still as one who is raised above her caste by a secret thought. She cherished in her heart an image of herself which she gloried in, while it made her blush; the hour when she must abdicate was ever present to her consciousness; thus she lived a double life, really scorning herself. Her sarcastic remarks were tinged by the temper which was roused in her by the intense contempt felt by the Angel of Love, hidden in the courtesan, for the disgraceful and odious part played by the body in the presence, as it were, of the soul. At once actor and spectator, victim and judge, she was a living realization of the beautiful Arabian Tales, in which a noble creature lies hidden under a degrading form, and of which the type is the story of Nebuchadnezzar in the book of books—the Bible. Having granted herself a lease of life till the day after her infidelity, the victim might surely play awhile with the executioner.
Moreover, the enlightenment that had come to Esther as to the secretly disgraceful means by which the Baron had made his colossal fortune relieved her of every scruple. She could play the part of Ate, the goddess of vengeance, as Carlos said. And so she was by turns enchanting and odious to the banker, who lived only for her. When the Baron had been worked up to such a pitch of suffering that he wanted only to be quit of Esther, she brought him round by a scene of tender affection.
Herrera, making a great show of starting for Spain, had gone as far as Tours. He had sent the chaise on as far as Bordeaux, with a servant inside, engaged to play the part of master, and to wait for him at Bordeaux. Then, returning by diligence, dressed as a commercial traveler, he had secretly taken up his abode under Esther's roof, and thence, aided by Asie and Europe, carefully directed all his machinations, keeping an eye on every one, and especially on Peyrade.
About a fortnight before the day chosen for her great entertainment, which was to be given in the evening after the first opera ball, the courtesan, whose witticisms were beginning to make her feared, happened to be at the Italian opera, at the back of a box which the Baron—forced to give a box—had secured in the lowest tier, in order to conceal his mistress, and not to flaunt her in public within a few feet of Madame de Nucingen. Esther had taken her seat, so as to "rake" that of Madame de Serizy, whom Lucien almost invariably accompanied. The poor girl made her whole happiness centre in watching Lucien on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays by Madame de Serizy's side.
At about half-past nine in the evening Esther could see Lucien enter the Countess' box, with a care-laden brow, pale, and with almost drawn features. These symptoms of mental anguish were legible only to Esther. The knowledge of a man's countenance is, to the woman who loves him, like that of the sea to a sailor.
"Good God! what can be the matter? What has happened? Does he want to speak with that angel of hell, who is to him a guardian angel, and who lives in an attic between those of Europe and Asie?"
Tormented by such reflections, Esther scarcely listened to the music. Still less, it may be believed, did she listen to the Baron, who held one of his "Anchel's" hands in both his, talking to her in his horrible Polish-Jewish accent, a jargon which must be as unpleasant to read as it is to hear spoken.
"Esther," said he, releasing her hand, and pushing it away with a slight touch of temper, "you do not listen to me."
"I tell you what, Baron, you blunder in love as you gibber in French."
"I am not in my boudoir here, I am at the opera. If you were not a barrel made by Huret or Fichet, metamorphosed into a man by some trick of nature, you would not make so much noise in a box with a woman who is fond of music. I don't listen to you? I should think not! There you sit rustling my dress like a cockchafer in a paper-bag, and making me laugh with contempt. You say to me, 'You are so pretty, I should like to eat you!' Old simpleton! Supposing I were to say to you, 'You are less intolerable this evening than you were yesterday—we will go home?'—Well, from the way you puff and sigh—for I feel you if I don't listen to you—I perceive that you have eaten an enormous dinner, and your digestion is at work. Let me instruct you—for I cost you enough to give some advice for your money now and then—let me tell you, my dear fellow, that a man whose digestion is so troublesome as yours is, is not justified in telling his mistress that she is pretty at unseemly hours. An old soldier died of that very folly 'in the arms of Religion,' as Blondet has it.
"It is now ten o'clock. You finished dinner at du Tillet's at nine o'clock, with your pigeon the Comte de Brambourg; you have millions and truffles to digest. Come to-morrow night at ten."
"Vat you are cruel!" cried the Baron, recognizing the profound truth of this medical argument.
"Cruel!" echoed Esther, still looking at Lucien. "Have you not consulted Bianchon, Desplein, old Haudry?—Since you have had a glimpse of future happiness, do you know what you seem like to me?"
"A fat old fellow wrapped in flannel, who walks every hour from his armchair to the window to see if the thermometer has risen to the degree marked 'Silkworms,' the temperature prescribed by his physician."
"You are really an ungrateful slut!" cried the Baron, in despair at hearing a tune, which, however, amorous old men not unfrequently hear at the opera.
"Ungrateful!" retorted Esther. "What have you given me till now? A great deal of annoyance. Come, papa! Can I be proud of you? You! you are proud of me; I wear your livery and badge with an air. You paid my debts? So you did. But you have grabbed so many millions—come, you need not sulk; you admitted that to me—that you need not think twice of that. And this is your chief title to fame. A baggage and a thief—a well-assorted couple!
"You have built a splendid cage for a parrot that amuses you. Go and ask a Brazilian cockatoo what gratitude it owes to the man who placed it in a gilded cage.—Don't look at me like that; you are just like a Buddist Bonze.
"Well, you show your red-and-white cockatoo to all Paris. You say, 'Does anybody else in Paris own such a parrot? And how well it talks, how cleverly it picks its words!' If du Tillet comes in, it says at once, 'How'do, little swindler!'—Why, you are as happy as a Dutchman who has grown an unique tulip, as an old nabob pensioned off in Asia by England, when a commercial traveler sells him the first Swiss snuff-box that opens in three places.
"You want to win my heart? Well, now, I will tell you how to do it."
"Speak, speak, dere is noting I shall not do for you. I lofe to be fooled by you."
"Be young, be handsome, be like Lucien de Rubempre over there by your wife, and you shall have gratis what you can never buy with all your millions!"
"I shall go 'vay, for really you are too bat dis evening!" said the banker, with a lengthened face.
"Very well, good-night then," said Esther. "Tell Georches to make your pillows very high and place your fee low, for you look apoplectic this evening.—You cannot say, my dear, that I take no interest in your health."
The Baron was standing up, and held the door-knob in his hand.
"Here, Nucingen," said Esther, with an imperious gesture.
The Baron bent over her with dog-like devotion.
"Do you want to see me very sweet, and giving you sugar-and-water, and petting you in my house, this very evening, old monster?"
"You shall break my heart!"
"Break your heart—you mean bore you," she went on. "Well, bring me Lucien that I may invite him to our Belshazzar's feast, and you may be sure he will not fail to come. If you succeed in that little transaction, I will tell you that I love you, my fat Frederic, in such plain terms that you cannot but believe me."
"You are an enchantress," said the Baron, kissing Esther's glove. "I should be villing to listen to abuse for ein hour if alvays der vas a kiss at de ent of it."
"But if I am not obeyed, I——" and she threatened the Baron with her finger as we threaten children.
The Baron raised his head like a bird caught in a springe and imploring the trapper's pity.
"Dear Heaven! What ails Lucien?" said she to herself when she was alone, making no attempt to check her falling tears; "I never saw him so sad."