A Distinguished Provincial at Paris/Part 2/Section 14
When Lucien stepped into the carriage in the courtyard, he found Coralie waiting for him. She had come to fetch him. The little attention touched him; he told her the history of his evening; and, to his no small astonishment, the new notions which even now were running in his head met with Coralie's approval. She strongly advised him to enlist under the ministerial banner.
"You have nothing to expect from the Liberals but hard knocks," she said. "They plot and conspire; they murdered the Duc de Berri. Will they upset the Government? Never! You will never come to anything through them, while you will be Comte de Rubempre if you throw in your lot with the other side. You might render services to the State, and be a peer of France, and marry an heiress. Be an Ultra. It is the proper thing besides," she added, this being the last word with her on all subjects. "I dined with the Val-Noble; she told me that Theodore Gaillard is really going to start his little Royalist Revue, so as to reply to your witticisms and the jokes in the Miroir. To hear them talk, M. Villele's party will be in office before the year is out. Try to turn the change to account before they come to power; and say nothing to Etienne and your friends, for they are quite equal to playing you some ill turn."
A week later, Lucien went to Mme. de Montcornet's house, and saw the woman whom he had so loved, whom later he had stabbed to the heart with a jest. He felt the most violent agitation at the sight of her, for Louise also had undergone a transformation. She was the Louise that she would always have been but for her detention in the provinces—she was a great lady. There was a grace and refinement in her mourning dress which told that she was a happy widow; Lucien fancied that this coquetry was aimed in some degree at him, and he was right; but, like an ogre, he had tasted flesh, and all that evening he vacillated between Coralie's warm, voluptuous beauty and the dried-up, haughty, cruel Louise. He could not make up his mind to sacrifice the actress to the great lady; and Mme. de Bargeton—all the old feeling reviving in her at the sight of Lucien, Lucien's beauty, Lucien's cleverness—was waiting and expecting that sacrifice all evening; and after all her insinuating speeches and her fascinations, she had her trouble for her pains. She left the room with a fixed determination to be revenged.
"Well, dear Lucien," she had said, and in her kindness there was both generosity and Parisian grace; "well, dear Lucien, so you, that were to have been my pride, took me for your first victim; and I forgave you, my dear, for I felt that in such a revenge there was a trace of love still left."
With that speech, and the queenly way in which it was uttered, Mme. de Bargeton recovered her position. Lucien, convinced that he was a thousand times in the right, felt that he had been put in the wrong. Not one word of the causes of the rupture! not one syllable of the terrible farewell letter! A woman of the world has a wonderful genius for diminishing her faults by laughing at them; she can obliterate them all with a smile or a question of feigned surprise, and she knows this. She remembers nothing, she can explain everything; she is amazed, asks questions, comments, amplifies, and quarrels with you, till in the end her sins disappear like stains on the application of a little soap and water; black as ink you knew them to be; and lo! in a moment, you behold immaculate white innocence, and lucky are you if you do not find that you yourself have sinned in some way beyond redemption.
In a moment old illusions regained their power over Lucien and Louise; they talked like friends, as before; but when the lady, with a hesitating sigh, put the question, "Are you happy?" Lucien was not ready with a prompt, decided answer; he was intoxicated with gratified vanity; Coralie, who (let us admit it) had made life easy for him, had turned his head. A melancholy "No" would have made his fortune, but he must needs begin to explain his position with regard to Coralie. He said that he was loved for his own sake; he said a good many foolish things that a man will say when he is smitten with a tender passion, and thought the while that he was doing a clever thing.
Mme. de Bargeton bit her lips. There was no more to be said. Mme. d'Espard brought Mme. de Montcornet to her cousin, and Lucien became the hero of the evening, so to speak. He was flattered, petted, and made much of by the three women; he was entangled with art which no words can describe. His social success in this fine and brilliant circle was at least as great as his triumphs in journalism. Beautiful Mlle. des Touches, so well known as "Camille Maupin," asked him to one of her Wednesday dinners; his beauty, now so justly famous, seemed to have made an impression upon her. Lucien exerted himself to show that his wit equaled his good looks, and Mlle. des Touches expressed her admiration with a playful outspokenness and a pretty fervor of friendship which deceives those who do not know life in Paris to its depths, nor suspect how continual enjoyment whets the appetite for novelty.
"If she should like me as much as I like her, we might abridge the romance," said Lucien, addressing de Marsay and Rastignac.
"You both of you write romances too well to care to live them," returned Rastignac. "Can men and women who write ever fall in love with each other? A time is sure to come when they begin to make little cutting remarks."
"It would not be a bad dream for you," laughed de Marsay. "The charming young lady is thirty years old, it is true, but she has an income of eighty thousand livres. She is adorably capricious, and her style of beauty wears well. Coralie is a silly little fool, my dear boy, well enough for a start, for a young spark must have a mistress; but unless you make some great conquest in the great world, an actress will do you harm in the long run. Now, my boy, go and cut out Conti. Here he is, just about to sing with Camille Maupin. Poetry has taken precedence of music ever since time began."
But when Lucien heard Mlle. des Touches' voice blending with Conti's, his hopes fled.
"Conti sings too well," he told des Lupeaulx; and he went back to Mme. de Bargeton, who carried him off to Mme. d'Espard in another room.
"Well, will you not interest yourself in him?" asked Mme. de Bargeton.
The Marquise spoke with an air half kindly, half insolent. "Let M. Chardon first put himself in such a position that he will not compromise those who take an interest in him," she said. "If he wishes to drop his patronymic and to bear his mother's name, he should at any rate be on the right side, should he not?"
"In less than two months I will arrange everything," said Lucien.
"Very well," returned Mme. d'Espard. "I will speak to my father and uncle; they are in waiting, they will speak to the Chancellor for you."
The diplomatist and the two women had very soon discovered Lucien's weak side. The poet's head was turned by the glory of the aristocracy; every man who entered the rooms bore a sounding name mounted in a glittering title, and he himself was plain Chardon. Unspeakable mortification filled him at the sound of it. Wherever he had been during the last few days, that pang had been constantly present with him. He felt, moreover, a sensation quite as unpleasant when he went back to his desk after an evening spent in the great world, in which he made a tolerable figure, thanks to Coralie's carriage and Coralie's servants.
He learned to ride, in order to escort Mme. d'Espard, Mlle. des Touches, and the Comtesse de Montcornet when they drove in the Bois, a privilege which he had envied other young men so greatly when he first came to Paris. Finot was delighted to give his right-hand man an order for the Opera, so Lucien wasted many an evening there, and thenceforward he was among the exquisites of the day.
The poet asked Rastignac and his new associates to a breakfast, and made the blunder of giving it in Coralie's rooms in the Rue de Vendome; he was too young, too much of a poet, too self-confident, to discern certain shades and distinctions in conduct; and how should an actress, a good-hearted but uneducated girl, teach him life? His guests were anything but charitably disposed towards him; it was clearly proven to their minds that Lucien the critic and the actress were in collusion for their mutual interests, and all of the young men were jealous of an arrangement which all of them stigmatized. The most pitiless of those who laughed that evening at Lucien's expense was Rastignac himself. Rastignac had made and held his position by very similar means; but so careful had he been of appearances, that he could afford to treat scandal as slander.
Lucien proved an apt pupil at whist. Play became a passion with him; and so far from disapproving, Coralie encouraged his extravagance with the peculiar short-sightedness of an all-absorbing love, which sees nothing beyond the moment, and is ready to sacrifice anything, even the future, to the present enjoyment. Coralie looked on cards as a safe-guard against rivals. A great love has much in common with childhood—a child's heedless, careless, spendthrift ways, a child's laughter and tears.
In those days there lived and flourished a set of young men, some of them rich, some poor, and all of them idle, called "free-livers" (viveurs); and, indeed, they lived with incredible insolence—unabashed and unproductive consumers, and yet more intrepid drinkers. These spendthrifts mingled the roughest practical jokes with a life not so much reckless as suicidal; they drew back from no impossibility, and gloried in pranks which, nevertheless, were confined within certain limits; and as they showed the most original wit in their escapades, it was impossible not to pardon them.
No sign of the times more plainly discovered the helotism to which the Restoration had condemned the young manhood of the epoch. The younger men, being at a loss to know what to do with themselves, were compelled to find other outlets for their superabundant energy besides journalism, or conspiracy, or art, or letters. They squandered their strength in the wildest excesses, such sap and luxuriant power was there in young France. The hard workers among these gilded youths wanted power and pleasure; the artists wished for money; the idle sought to stimulate their appetites or wished for excitement; one and all of them wanted a place, and one and all were shut out from politics and public life. Nearly all the "free-livers" were men of unusual mental powers; some held out against the enervating life, others were ruined by it. The most celebrated and the cleverest among them was Eugene Rastignac, who entered, with de Marsay's help, upon a political career, in which he has since distinguished himself. The practical jokes, in which the set indulged became so famous, that not a few vaudevilles have been founded upon them.
Blondet introduced Lucien to this society of prodigals, of which he became a brilliant ornament, ranking next to Bixiou, one of the most mischievous and untiring scoffing wits of his time. All through that winter Lucien's life was one long fit of intoxication, with intervals of easy work. He continued his series of sketches of contemporary life, and very occasionally made great efforts to write a few pages of serious criticism, on which he brought his utmost power of thought to bear. But study was the exception, not the rule, and only undertaken at the bidding of necessity; dinners and breakfasts, parties of pleasure and play, took up most of his time, and Coralie absorbed all that was left. He would not think of the morrow. He saw besides that his so-called friends were leading the same life, earning money easily by writing publishers' prospectuses and articles paid for by speculators; all of them lived beyond their incomes, none of them thought seriously of the future.
Lucien had been admitted into the ranks of journalism and of literature on terms of equality; he foresaw immense difficulties in the way if he should try to rise above the rest. Every one was willing to look upon him as an equal; no one would have him for a superior. Unconsciously he gave up the idea of winning fame in literature, for it seemed easier to gain success in politics.
"Intrigue raises less opposition than talent," du Chatelet had said one day (for Lucien and the Baron had made up their quarrel); "a plot below the surface rouses no one's attention. Intrigue, moreover, is superior to talent, for it makes something out of nothing; while, for the most part, the immense resources of talent only injure a man."
So Lucien never lost sight of his principal idea; and though to-morrow, following close upon the heels of to-day in the midst of an orgy, never found the promised work accomplished, Lucien was assiduous in society. He paid court to Mme. de Bargeton, the Marquise d'Espard, and the Comtesse de Montcornet; he never missed a single party given by Mlle. des Touches, appearing in society after a dinner given by authors or publishers, and leaving the salons for a supper given in consequence of a bet. The demands of conversation and the excitement of play absorbed all the ideas and energy left by excess. The poet had lost the lucidity of judgment and coolness of head which must be preserved if a man is to see all that is going on around him, and never to lose the exquisite tact which the parvenu needs at every moment. How should he know how many a time Mme. de Bargeton left him with wounded susceptibilities, how often she forgave him or added one more condemnation to the rest?
Chatelet saw that his rival had still a chance left, so he became Lucien's friend. He encouraged the poet in dissipation that wasted his energies. Rastignac, jealous of his fellow-countryman, and thinking, besides, that Chatelet would be a surer and more useful ally than Lucien, had taken up the Baron's cause. So, some few days after the meeting of the Petrarch and Laura of Angouleme, Rastignac brought about the reconciliation between the poet and the elderly beau at a sumptuous supper given at the Rocher de Cancale. Lucien never returned home till morning, and rose in the middle of the day; Coralie was always at his side, he could not forego a single pleasure. Sometimes he saw his real position, and made good resolutions, but they came to nothing in his idle, easy life; and the mainspring of will grew slack, and only responded to the heaviest pressure of necessity.
Coralie had been glad that Lucien should amuse himself; she had encouraged him in this reckless expenditure, because she thought that the cravings which she fostered would bind her lover to her. But tender-hearted and loving as she was, she found courage to advise Lucien not to forget his work, and once or twice was obliged to remind him that he had earned very little during the month. Their debts were growing frightfully fast. The fifteen hundred francs which remained from the purchase-money of the Marguerites had been swallowed up at once, together with Lucien's first five hundred livres. In three months he had only made a thousand francs, yet he felt as though he had been working tremendously hard. But by this time Lucien had adopted the "free-livers" pleasant theory of debts.
Debts are becoming to a young man, but after the age of five-and-twenty they are inexcusable. It should be observed that there are certain natures in which a really poetic temper is united with a weakened will; and these while absorbed in feeling, that they may transmute personal experience, sensation, or impression into some permanent form are essentially deficient in the moral sense which should accompany all observation. Poets prefer rather to receive their own impressions than to enter into the souls of others to study the mechanism of their feelings and thoughts. So Lucien neither asked his associates what became of those who disappeared from among them, nor looked into the futures of his so-called friends. Some of them were heirs to property, others had definite expectations; yet others either possessed names that were known in the world, or a most robust belief in their destiny and a fixed resolution to circumvent the law. Lucien, too, believed in his future on the strength of various profound axiomatic sayings of Blondet's: "Everything comes out all right at last—If a man has nothing, his affairs cannot be embarrassed—We have nothing to lose but the fortune that we seek—Swim with the stream; it will take you somewhere—A clever man with a footing in society can make a fortune whenever he pleases."
That winter, filled as it was with so many pleasures and dissipations, was a necessary interval employed in finding capital for the new Royalist paper; Theodore Gaillard and Hector Merlin only brought out the first number of the Reveil in March 1822. The affair had been settled at Mme. du Val-Noble's house. Mme. du val-Noble exercised a certain influence over the great personages, Royalist writers, and bankers who met in her splendid rooms—"fit for a tale out of the Arabian Nights," as the elegant and clever courtesan herself used to say—to transact business which could not be arranged elsewhere. The editorship had been promised to Hector Merlin. Lucien, Merlin's intimate, was pretty certain to be his right-hand man, and a feuilleton in a Ministerial paper had been promised to him besides. All through the dissipations of that winter Lucien had been secretly making ready for this change of front. Child as he was, he fancied that he was a deep politician because he concealed the preparation for the approaching transformation-scene, while he was counting upon Ministerial largesses to extricate himself from embarrassment and to lighten Coralie's secret cares. Coralie said nothing of her distress; she smiled now, as always; but Berenice was bolder, she kept Lucien informed of their difficulties; and the budding great man, moved, after the fashion of poets, by the tale of disasters, would vow that he would begin to work in earnest, and then forget his resolution, and drown his fleeting cares in excess. One day Coralie saw the poetic brow overcast, and scolded Berenice, and told her lover that everything would be settled.
Mme. d'Espard and Mme. de Bargeton were waiting for Lucien's profession of his new creed, so they said, before applying through Chatelet for the patent which should permit Lucien to bear the so-much desired name. Lucien had proposed to dedicate the Marguerites to Mme. d'Espard, and the Marquise seemed to be not a little flattered by a compliment which authors have been somewhat chary of paying since they became a power in the land; but when Lucien went to Dauriat and asked after his book, that worthy publisher met him with excellent reasons for the delay in its appearance. Dauriat had this and that in hand, which took up all his time; a new volume by Canalis was coming out, and he did not want the two books to clash; M. de Lamartine's second series of Meditations was in the press, and two important collections of poetry ought not to appear together.
By this time, however, Lucien's needs were so pressing that he had recourse to Finot, and received an advance on his work. When, at a supper-party that evening, the poet journalist explained his position to his friends in the fast set, they drowned his scruples in champagne, iced with pleasantries. Debts! There was never yet a man of any power without debts! Debts represented satisfied cravings, clamorous vices. A man only succeeds under the pressure of the iron hand of necessity. Debts forsooth!
"Why, the one pledge of which a great man can be sure, is given him by his friend the pawnbroker," cried Blondet.
"If you want everything, you must owe for everything," called Bixiou.
"No," corrected des Lupeaulx, "if you owe for everything, you have had everything."
The party contrived to convince the novice that his debts were a golden spur to urge on the horses of the chariot of his fortunes. There is always the stock example of Julius Caesar with his debt of forty millions, and Friedrich II. on an allowance of one ducat a month, and a host of other great men whose failings are held up for the corruption of youth, while not a word is said of their wide-reaching ideas, their courage equal to all odds.
Creditors seized Coralie's horses, carriage, and furniture at last, for an amount of four thousand francs. Lucien went to Lousteau and asked his friend to meet his bill for the thousand francs lent to pay gaming debts; but Lousteau showed him certain pieces of stamped paper, which proved that Florine was in much the same case. Lousteau was grateful, however, and offered to take the necessary steps for the sale of Lucien's Archer of Charles IX.
"How came Florine to be in this plight?" asked Lucien.
"The Matifat took alarm," said Lousteau. "We have lost him; but if Florine chooses, she can make him pay dear for his treachery. I will tell you all about it."
Three days after this bootless errand, Lucien and Coralie were breakfasting in melancholy spirits beside the fire in their pretty bedroom. Berenice had cooked a dish of eggs for them over the grate; for the cook had gone, and the coachman and servants had taken leave. They could not sell the furniture, for it had been attached; there was not a single object of any value in the house. A goodly collection of pawntickets, forming a very instructive octavo volume, represented all the gold, silver, and jewelry. Berenice had kept back a couple of spoons and forks, that was all.
Lousteau's newspaper was of service now to Coralie and Lucien, little as they suspected it; for the tailor, dressmaker, and milliner were afraid to meddle with a journalist who was quite capable of writing down their establishments.
Etienne Lousteau broke in upon their breakfast with a shout of "Hurrah! Long live The Archer of Charles IX.! And I have converted a hundred francs worth of books into cash, children. We will go halves."
He handed fifty francs to Coralie, and sent Berenice out in quest of a more substantial breakfast.