A Distinguished Provincial at Paris/Part 2/Section 17

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Next day Lucien allowed his name to appear in the list of contributors to the Reveil. His name was announced in the prospectus with a flourish of trumpets, and the Ministry took care that a hundred thousand copies should be scattered abroad far and wide. There was a dinner at Robert's, two doors away from Frascati's, to celebrate the inauguration, and the whole band of Royalist writers for the press were present. Martainville was there, and Auger and Destains, and a host of others, still living, who "did Monarchy and religion," to use the familiar expression coined for them. Nathan had also enlisted under the banner, for he was thinking of starting a theatre, and not unreasonably held that it was better to have the licensing authorities for him than against him.

"We will pay the Liberals out," cried Merlin.

"Gentlemen," said Nathan, "if we are for war, let us have war in earnest; we must not carry it on with pop-guns. Let us fall upon all Classicals and Liberals without distinction of age or sex, and put them all to the sword with ridicule. There must be no quarter."

"We must act honorably; there must be no bribing with copies of books or presents; no taking money of publishers. We must inaugurate a Restoration of Journalism."

"Good!" said Martainville. "Justum et tenacem propositi virum! Let us be implacable and virulent. I will give out La Fayette for the prince of harlequins that he is!"

"And I will undertake the heroes of the Constitutionnel," added Lucien; "Sergeant Mercier, M. Jouy's Complete Works, and 'the illustrious orators of the Left.'"

A war of extermination was unanimously resolved upon, and by one o'clock in the morning all shades of opinion were merged and drowned, together with every glimmer of sense, in a flaming bowl of punch.

"We have had a fine Monarchical and Religious jollification," remarked an illustrious reveler in the doorway as he went.

That comment appeared in the next day's issue of the Miroir through the good offices of a publisher among the guests, and became historic. Lucien was supposed to be the traitor who blabbed. His defection gave the signal for a terrific hubbub in the Liberal camp; Lucien was the butt of the Opposition newspapers, and ridiculed unmercifully. The whole history of his sonnets was given to the public. Dauriat was said to prefer a first loss of a thousand crowns to the risk of publishing the verses; Lucien was called "the Poet sans Sonnets;" and one morning, in that very paper in which he had so brilliant a beginning, he read the following lines, significant enough for him, but barely intelligible to other readers:

*** "If M. Dauriat persistently withholds the Sonnets of the future Petrarch from publication, we will act like generous foes. We will open our own columns to his poems, which must be piquant indeed, to judge by the following specimen obligingly communicated by a friend of the author."

And close upon that ominous preface followed a sonnet entitled "The Thistle" (le Chardon):

  A chance-come seedling, springing up one day
  Among the flowers in a garden fair,
  Made boast that splendid colors bright and rare
  Its claims to lofty lineage should display.

  So for a while they suffered it to stay;
  But with such insolence it flourished there,
  That, out of patience with its braggart's air,
  They bade it prove its claims without delay.

  It bloomed forthwith; but ne'er was blundering clown
  Upon the boards more promptly hooted down;
  The sister flowers began to jeer and laugh.

  The owner flung it out. At close of day
  A solitary jackass came to bray—
  A common Thistle's fitting epitaph.

Lucien read the words through scalding tears.

Vernou touched elsewhere on Lucien's gambling propensities, and spoke of the forthcoming Archer of Charles IX. as "anti-national" in its tendency, the writer siding with Catholic cut-throats against their Calvinist victims.

Another week found the quarrel embittered. Lucien had counted upon his friend Etienne; Etienne owed him a thousand francs, and there had been besides a private understanding between them; but Etienne Lousteau during the interval became his sworn foe, and this was the manner of it.

For the past three months Nathan had been smitten with Florine's charms, and much at a loss how to rid himself of Lousteau his rival, who was in fact dependent upon the actress. And now came Nathan's opportunity, when Florine was frantic with distress over the failure of the Panorama-Dramatique, which left her without an engagement. He went as Lucien's colleague to beg Coralie to ask for a part for Florine in a play of his which was about to be produced at the Gymnase. Then Nathan went to Florine and made capital with her out of the service done by the promise of a conditional engagement. Ambition turned Florine's head; she did not hesitate. She had had time to gauge Lousteau pretty thoroughly. Lousteau's courses were weakening his will, and here was Nathan with his ambitions in politics and literature, and energies strong as his cravings. Florine proposed to reappear on the stage with renewed eclat, so she handed over Matifat's correspondence to Nathan. Nathan drove a bargain for them with Matifat, and took the sixth share of Finot's review in exchange for the compromising billets. After this, Florine was installed in sumptuously furnished apartments in the Rue Hauteville, where she took Nathan for her protector in the face of the theatrical and journalistic world.

Lousteau was terribly overcome. He wept (towards the close of a dinner given by his friends to console him in his affliction). In the course of that banquet it was decided that Nathan had not acted unfairly; several writers present—Finot and Vernou, for instance,—knew of Florine's fervid admiration for dramatic literature; but they all agreed that Lucien had behaved very ill when he arranged that business at the Gymnase; he had indeed broken the most sacred laws of friendship. Party-spirit and zeal to serve his new friends had led the Royalist poet on to sin beyond forgiveness.

"Nathan was carried away by passion," pronounced Bixiou, "while this 'distinguished provincial,' as Blondet calls him, is simply scheming for his own selfish ends."

And so it came to pass that deep plots were laid by all parties alike to rid themselves of this little upstart intruder of a poet who wanted to eat everybody up. Vernou bore Lucien a personal grudge, and undertook to keep a tight hand on him; and Finot declared that Lucien had betrayed the secret of the combination against Matifat, and thereby swindled him (Finot) out of fifty thousand francs. Nathan, acting on Florine's advice, gained Finot's support by selling him the sixth share for fifteen thousand francs, and Lousteau consequently lost his commission. His thousand crowns had vanished away; he could not forgive Lucien for this treacherous blow (as he supposed it) dealt to his interests. The wounds of vanity refuse to heal if oxide of silver gets into them.

No words, no amount of description, can depict the wrath of an author in a paroxysm of mortified vanity, nor the energy which he discovers when stung by the poisoned darts of sarcasm; but, on the other hand, the man that is roused to fighting-fury by a personal attack usually subsides very promptly. The more phlegmatic race, who take these things quietly, lay their account with the oblivion which speedily overtakes the spiteful article. These are the truly courageous men of letters; and if the weaklings seem at first to be the strong men, they cannot hold out for any length of time.

During that first fortnight, while the fury was upon him, Lucien poured a perfect hailstorm of articles into the Royalist papers, in which he shared the responsibilities of criticism with Hector Merlin. He was always in the breach, pounding away with all his might in the Reveil, backed up by Martainville, the only one among his associates who stood by him without an afterthought. Martainville was not in the secret of certain understandings made and ratified amid after-dinner jokes, or at Dauriat's in the Wooden Galleries, or behind the scenes at the Vaudeville, when journalists of either side met on neutral ground.

When Lucien went to the greenroom of the Vaudeville, he met with no welcome; the men of his own party held out a hand to shake, the others cut him; and all the while Hector Merlin and Theodore Gaillard fraternized unblushingly with Finot, Lousteau, and Vernou, and the rest of the journalists who were known for "good fellows."

The greenroom of the Vaudeville in those days was a hotbed of gossip, as well as a neutral ground where men of every shade of opinion could meet; so much so that the President of a court of law, after reproving a learned brother in a certain council chamber for "sweeping the greenroom with his gown," met the subject of his strictures, gown to gown, in the greenroom of the Vaudeville. Lousteau, in time, shook hands again with Nathan; Finot came thither almost every evening; and Lucien, whenever he could spare the time, went to the Vaudeville to watch the enemies, who showed no sign of relenting towards the unfortunate boy.

In the time of the Restoration party hatred was far more bitter than in our day. Intensity of feeling is diminished in our high-pressure age. The critic cuts a book to pieces and shakes hands with the author afterwards, and the victim must keep on good terms with his slaughterer, or run the gantlet of innumerable jokes at his expense. If he refuses, he is unsociable, eaten up with self-love, he is sulky and rancorous, he bears malice, he is a bad bed-fellow. To-day let an author receive a treacherous stab in the back, let him avoid the snares set for him with base hypocrisy, and endure the most unhandsome treatment, he must still exchange greetings with his assassin, who, for that matter, claims the esteem and friendship of his victim. Everything can be excused and justified in an age which has transformed vice into virtue and virtue into vice. Good-fellowship has come to be the most sacred of our liberties; the representatives of the most opposite opinions courteously blunt the edge of their words, and fence with buttoned foils. But in those almost forgotten days the same theatre could scarcely hold certain Royalist and Liberal journalists; the most malignant provocation was offered, glances were like pistol-shots, the least spark produced an explosion of quarrel. Who has not heard his neighbor's half-smothered oath on the entrance of some man in the forefront of the battle on the opposing side? There were but two parties—Royalists and Liberals, Classics and Romantics. You found the same hatred masquerading in either form, and no longer wondered at the scaffolds of the Convention.

Lucien had been a Liberal and a hot Voltairean; now he was a rabid Royalist and a Romantic. Martainville, the only one among his colleagues who really liked him and stood by him loyally, was more hated by the Liberals than any man on the Royalist side, and this fact drew down all the hate of the Liberals on Lucien's head. Martainville's staunch friendship injured Lucien. Political parties show scanty gratitude to outpost sentinels, and leave leaders of forlorn hopes to their fate; 'tis a rule of warfare which holds equally good in matters political, to keep with the main body of the army if you mean to succeed. The spite of the small Liberal papers fastened at once on the opportunity of coupling the two names, and flung them into each other's arms. Their friendship, real or imaginary, brought down upon them both a series of articles written by pens dipped in gall. Felicien Vernou was furious with jealousy of Lucien's social success; and believed, like all his old associates, in the poet's approaching elevation.

The fiction of Lucien's treason was embellished with every kind of aggravating circumstance; he was called Judas the Less, Martainville being Judas the Great, for Martainville was supposed (rightly or wrongly) to have given up the Bridge of Pecq to the foreign invaders. Lucien said jestingly to des Lupeaulx that he himself, surely, had given up the Asses' Bridge.

Lucien's luxurious life, hollow though it was, and founded on expectations, had estranged his friends. They could not forgive him for the carriage which he had put down—for them he was still rolling about in it—nor yet for the splendors of the Rue de Vendome which he had left. All of them felt instinctively that nothing was beyond the reach of this young and handsome poet, with intellect enough and to spare; they themselves had trained him in corruption; and, therefore, they left no stone unturned to ruin him.

Some few days before Coralie's first appearance at the Gymnase, Lucien and Hector Merlin went arm-in-arm to the Vaudeville. Merlin was scolding his friend for giving a helping hand to Nathan in Florine's affair.

"You then and there made two mortal enemies of Lousteau and Nathan," he said. "I gave you good advice, and you took no notice of it. You gave praise, you did them a good turn—you will be well punished for your kindness. Florine and Coralie will never live in peace on the same stage; both will wish to be first. You can only defend Coralie in our papers; and Nathan not only has a pull as a dramatic author, he can control the dramatic criticism in the Liberal newspapers. He has been a journalist a little longer than you!"

The words responded to Lucien's inward misgivings. Neither Nathan nor Gaillard was treating him with the frankness which he had a right to expect, but so new a convert could hardly complain. Gaillard utterly confounded Lucien by saying roundly that newcomers must give proofs of their sincerity for some time before their party could trust them. There was more jealousy than he had imagined in the inner circles of Royalist and Ministerial journalism. The jealousy of curs fighting for a bone is apt to appear in the human species when there is a loaf to divide; there is the same growling and showing of teeth, the same characteristics come out.

In every possible way these writers of articles tried to injure each other with those in power; they brought reciprocal accusations of lukewarm zeal; they invented the most treacherous ways of getting rid of a rival. There had been none of this internecine warfare among the Liberals; they were too far from power, too hopelessly out of favor; and Lucien, amid the inextricable tangle of ambitions, had neither the courage to draw sword and cut the knot, or the patience to unravel it. He could not be the Beaumarchais, the Aretino, the Freron of his epoch; he was not made of such stuff; he thought of nothing but his one desire, the patent of nobility; for he saw clearly that for him such a restoration meant a wealthy marriage, and, the title once secured, chance and his good looks would do the rest. This was all his plan, and Etienne Lousteau, who had confided so much to him, knew his secret, knew how to deal a deathblow to the poet of Angouleme. That very night, as Lucien and Merlin went to the Vaudeville, Etienne had laid a terrible trap, into which an inexperienced boy could not but fall.

"Here is our handsome Lucien," said Finot, drawing des Lupeaulx in the direction of the poet, and shaking hands with feline amiability. "I cannot think of another example of such rapid success," continued Finot, looking from des Lupeaulx to Lucien. "There are two sorts of success in Paris: there is a fortune in solid cash, which any one can amass, and there is the intangible fortune of connections, position, or a footing in certain circles inaccessible for certain persons, however rich they may be. Now my friend here——"

"Our friend," interposed des Lupeaulx, smiling blandly.

"Our friend," repeated Finot, patting Lucien's hand, "has made a brilliant success from this point of view. Truth to tell, Lucien has more in him, more gift, more wit than the rest of us that envy him, and he is enchantingly handsome besides; his old friends cannot forgive him for his success—they call it luck."

"Luck of that sort never comes to fools or incapables," said des Lupeaulx. "Can you call Bonaparte's fortune luck, eh? There were a score of applicants for the command of the army in Italy, just as there are a hundred young men at this moment who would like to have an entrance to Mlle. des Touches' house; people are coupling her name with yours already in society, my dear boy," said des Lupeaulx, clapping Lucien on the shoulder. "Ah! you are in high favor. Mme. d'Espard, Mme. de Bargeton, and Mme. de Montcornet are wild about you. You are going to Mme. Firmiani's party to-night, are you not, and to the Duchesse de Grandlieu's rout to-morrow?"

"Yes," said Lucien.

"Allow me to introduce a young banker to you, a M. du Tillet; you ought to be acquainted, he has contrived to make a great fortune in a short time."

Lucien and du Tillet bowed, and entered into conversation, and the banker asked Lucien to dinner. Finot and des Lupeaulx, a well-matched pair, knew each other well enough to keep upon good terms; they turned away to continue their chat on one of the sofas in the greenroom, and left Lucien with du Tillet, Merlin, and Nathan.

"By the way, my friend," said Finot, "tell me how things stand. Is there really somebody behind Lucien? For he is the bete noire of my staff; and before allowing them to plot against him, I thought I should like to know whether, in your opinion, it would be better to baffle them and keep well with him."

The Master of Requests and Finot looked at each other very closely for a moment or two.

"My dear fellow," said des Lupeaulx, "how can you imagine that the Marquise d'Espard, or Chatelet, or Mme. de Bargeton—who has procured the Baron's nomination to the prefecture and the title of Count, so as to return in triumph to Angouleme—how can you suppose that any of them will forgive Lucien for his attacks on them? They dropped him down in the Royalist ranks to crush him out of existence. At this moment they are looking round for any excuse for not fulfilling the promises they made to that boy. Help them to some; you will do the greatest possible service to the two women, and some day or other they will remember it. I am in their secrets; I was surprised to find how much they hated the little fellow. This Lucien might have rid himself of his bitterest enemy (Mme. de Bargeton) by desisting from his attacks on terms which a woman loves to grant—do you take me? He is young and handsome, he should have drowned her hate in torrents of love, he would be Comte de Rubempre by this time; the Cuttlefish-bone would have obtained some sinecure for him, some post in the Royal Household. Lucien would have made a very pretty reader to Louis XVIII.; he might have been librarian somewhere or other, Master of Requests for a joke, Master of Revels, what you please. The young fool has missed his chance. Perhaps that is his unpardonable sin. Instead of imposing his conditions, he has accepted them. When Lucien was caught with the bait of the patent of nobility, the Baron Chatelet made a great step. Coralie has been the ruin of that boy. If he had not had the actress for his mistress, he would have turned again to the Cuttlefish-bone; and he would have had her too."

"Then we can knock him over?"

"How?" des Lupeaulx asked carelessly. He saw a way of gaining credit with the Marquise d'Espard for this service.

"He is under contract to write for Lousteau's paper, and we can the better hold him to his agreement because he has not a sou. If we tickle up the Keeper of the Seals with a facetious article, and prove that Lucien wrote it, he will consider that Lucien is unworthy of the King's favor. We have a plot on hand besides. Coralie will be ruined, and our distinguished provincial will lose his head when his mistress is hissed off the stage and left without an engagement. When once the patent is suspended, we will laugh at the victim's aristocratic pretensions, and allude to his mother the nurse and his father the apothecary. Lucien's courage is only skindeep, he will collapse; we will send him back to his provinces. Nathan made Florine sell me Matifat's sixth share of the review, I was able to buy; Dauriat and I are the only proprietors now; we might come to an understanding, you and I, and the review might be taken over for the benefit of the Court. I stipulated for the restitution of my sixth before I undertook to protect Nathan and Florine; they let me have it, and I must help them; but I wished to know first how Lucien stood——"

"You deserve your name," said des Lupeaulx. "I like a man of your sort——"

"Very well. Then can you arrange a definite engagement for Florine?" asked Finot.

"Yes, but rid us of Lucien, for Rastignac and de Marsay never wish to hear of him again."

"Sleep in peace," returned Finot. "Nathan and Merlin will always have articles ready for Gaillard, who will promise to take them; Lucien will never get a line into the paper. We will cut off his supplies. There is only Martainville's paper left him in which to defend himself and Coralie; what can a single paper do against so many?"

"I will let you know the weak points of the Ministry; but get Lucien to write that article and hand over the manuscript," said des Lupeaulx, who refrained carefully from informing Finot that Lucien's promised patent was nothing but a joke.

When des Lupeaulx had gone, Finot went to Lucien, and taking the good-natured tone which deceives so many victims, he explained that he could not possibly afford to lose his contributor, and at the same time he shrank from taking proceedings which might ruin him with his friends of the other side. Finot himself liked a man who was strong enough to change his opinions. They were pretty sure to come across one another, he and Lucien, and might be mutually helpful in a thousand little ways. Lucien, besides, needed a sure man in the Liberal party to attack the Ultras and men in office who might refuse to help him.

"Suppose that they play you false, what will you do?" Finot ended. "Suppose that some Minister fancies that he has you fast by the halter of your apostasy, and turns the cold shoulder on you? You will be glad to set on a few dogs to snap at his legs, will you not? Very well. But you have made a deadly enemy of Lousteau; he is thirsting for your blood. You and Felicien are not on speaking terms. I only remain to you. It is a rule of the craft to keep a good understanding with every man of real ability. In the world which you are about to enter you can do me services in return for mine with the press. But business first. Let me have purely literary articles; they will not compromise you, and we shall have executed our agreement."

Lucien saw nothing but good-fellowship and a shrewd eye to business in Finot's offer; Finot and des Lupeaulx had flattered him, and he was in a good humor. He actually thanked Finot!

Ambitious men, like all those who can only make their way by the help of others and of circumstances, are bound to lay their plans very carefully and to adhere very closely to the course of conduct on which they determine; it is a cruel moment in the lives of such aspirants when some unknown power brings the fabric of their fortunes to some severe test and everything gives way at once; threads are snapped or entangled, and misfortune appears on every side. Let a man lose his head in the confusion, it is all over with him; but if he can resist this first revolt of circumstances, if he can stand erect until the tempest passes over, or make a supreme effort and reach the serene sphere about the storm—then he is really strong. To every man, unless he is born rich, there comes sooner or later "his fatal week," as it must be called. For Napoleon, for instance, that week was the Retreat from Moscow. It had begun now for Lucien.

Social and literary success had come to him too easily; he had had such luck that he was bound to know reverses and to see men and circumstances turn against him.

The first blow was the heaviest and the most keenly felt, for it touched Lucien where he thought himself invulnerable—in his heart and his love. Coralie might not be clever, but hers was a noble nature, and she possessed the great actress' faculty of suddenly standing aloof from self. This strange phenomenon is subject, until it degenerates into a habit with long practice, to the caprices of character, and not seldom to an admirable delicacy of feeling in actresses who are still young. Coralie, to all appearance bold and wanton, as the part required, was in reality girlish and timid, and love had wrought in her a revulsion of her woman's heart against the comedian's mask. Art, the supreme art of feigning passion and feeling, had not yet triumphed over nature in her; she shrank before a great audience from the utterance that belongs to Love alone; and Coralie suffered besides from another true woman's weakness—she needed success, born stage queen though she was. She could not confront an audience with which she was out of sympathy; she was nervous when she appeared on the stage, a cold reception paralyzed her. Each new part gave her the terrible sensations of a first appearance. Applause produced a sort of intoxication which gave her encouragement without flattering her vanity; at a murmur of dissatisfaction or before a silent house, she flagged; but a great audience following attentively, admiringly, willing to be pleased, electrified Coralie. She felt at once in communication with the nobler qualities of all those listeners; she felt that she possessed the power of stirring their souls and carrying them with her. But if this action and reaction of the audience upon the actress reveals the nervous organization of genius, it shows no less clearly the poor child's sensitiveness and delicacy. Lucien had discovered the treasures of her nature; had learned in the past months that this woman who loved him was still so much of a girl. And Coralie was unskilled in the wiles of an actress—she could not fight her own battles nor protect herself against the machinations of jealousy behind the scenes. Florine was jealous of her, and Florine was as dangerous and depraved as Coralie was simple and generous. Roles must come to find Coralie; she was too proud to implore authors or to submit to dishonoring conditions; she would not give herself to the first journalist who persecuted her with his advances and threatened her with his pen. Genius is rare enough in the extraordinary art of the stage; but genius is only one condition of success among many, and is positively hurtful unless it is accompanied by a genius for intrigue in which Coralie was utterly lacking.

Lucien knew how much his friend would suffer on her first appearance at the Gymnase, and was anxious at all costs to obtain a success for her; but all the money remaining from the sale of the furniture and all Lucien's earnings had been sunk in costumes, in the furniture of a dressing-room, and the expenses of a first appearance.