THE NORMAL HISTORY OF AN UPPER-CLASS GRISETTE
A storm was gathering, as we see, over Monsieur de Rochefide, who enjoyed at that moment the greatest amount of happiness that a Parisian can desire in being to Madame Schontz as much a husband as he had been to Beatrix. It seemed therefore, as the duke had very sensibly said to his wife, almost an impossibility to upset so agreeable and satisfactory an existence. This opinion will oblige us to give certain details on the life led by Monsieur de Rochefide after his wife had placed him in the position of a deserted husband. The reader will then be enabled to understand the enormous difference which our laws and our morals put between the two sexes in the same situation. That which turns to misery for the woman turns to happiness for the man. This contrast may inspire more than one young woman with the determination to remain in her own home, and to struggle there, like Sabine du Guenic, by practising (as she may select) the most aggressive or the most inoffensive virtues.
Some days after Beatrix had abandoned him, Arthur de Rochefide, now an only child in consequence of the death of his sister, the first wife of the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, who left no children, found himself sole master of the hotel de Rochefide, rue d'Anjou Saint-Honore, and of two hundred thousand francs a year left to him by his father. This rich inheritance, added to the fortune which Arthur possessed when he married, brought his income, including that from the fortune of his wife, to a thousand francs a day. To a gentleman endowed with a nature such as Mademoiselle des Touches had described it in a few words to Calyste, such wealth was happiness enough. While his wife continued in her home and fulfilled the duties of maternity, Rochefide enjoyed this immense fortune; but he did not spend it any more than he expended the faculties of his mind. His good, stout vanity, gratified by the figure he presented as a handsome man (to which he owed a few successes that authorized him to despise women), allowed itself free scope in the matter of brains. Gifted with the sort of mind which we must call a reflector, he appropriated the sallies of others, the wit of the stage and the petits journaux, by his method of repeating them, and applied them as formulas of criticism. His military joviality (he had served in the Royal Guard) seasoned conversation with so much point that women without any intellects proclaimed him witty, and the rest did not dare to contradict them.
This system Arthur pursued in all things; he owed to nature the convenient genius of imitation without mimicry; he imitated seriously. Thus without any taste of his own, he knew how to be the first to adopt and the first to abandon a new fashion. Accused of nothing worse than spending too much time at his toilet and wearing a corset, he presented the type of those persons who displease no one by adopting incessantly the ideas and the follies of everbody, and who, astride of circumstance, never grow old.
As a husband, he was pitied; people thought Beatrix inexcusable for deserting the best fellow on earth, and social jeers only touched the woman. A member of all clubs, subscriber to all the absurdities generated by patriotism or party spirit ill-understood (a compliance which put him in the front rank a propos of all such matters), this loyal, brave, and very silly nobleman, whom unfortunately so many rich men resemble, would naturally desire to distinguish himself by adopting some fashionable mania. Consequently, he glorified his name principally in being the sultan of a four-footed harem, governed by an old English groom, which cost him monthly from four to five thousand francs. His specialty was running horses; he protected the equine race and supported a magazine devoted to hippic questions; but, for all that, he knew very little of the animals, and from shoes to bridles he depended wholly on his groom,—all of which will sufficiently explain to you that this semi-bachelor had nothing actually of his own, neither mind, taste, position, or absurdity; even his fortune came from his fathers. After having tasted the displeasures of marriage he was so content to find himself once more a bachelor that he said among his friends, "I was born with a caul" (that is, to good luck).
Pleased above all things to be able to live without the costs of making an appearance, to which husbands are constrained, his house, in which since the death of his father nothing had been changed, resembled those of masters who are travelling; he lived there little, never dined, and seldom slept there. Here follows the reason for such indifference.
After various amorous adventures, bored by women of fashion of the kind who are truly bores, and who plant too many thorny hedges around happiness, he had married after a fashion, as we shall see, a certain Madame Schontz, celebrated in the world of Fanny Beaupre, Susanne du Val-Noble, Florine, Mariette, Jenny Cadine, etc. This world,—of which one of our artists wittily remarked at the frantic moment of an opera galop, "When one thinks that all that is lodged and clothed and lives well, what a fine idea it gives us of mankind!"—this world has already irrupted elsewhere into this history of French manners and customs of the nineteenth century; but to paint it with fidelity, the historian should proportion the number of such personages to the diverse endings of their strange careers, which terminate either in poverty under its most hideous aspect, or by premature death often self-inflicted, or by lucky marriages, occasionally by opulence.
Madame Schontz, known at first under the name of La Petite-Aurelie, to distinguish her from one of her rivals far less clever than herself, belongs to the highest class of those women whose social utility cannot be questioned by the prefect of the Seine, nor by those who are interested in the welfare of the city of Paris. Certainly the Rat, accused of demolishing fortunes which frequently never existed, might better be compared to a beaver. Without the Aspasias of the Notre-Dame de Lorette quarter, far fewer houses would be built in Paris. Pioneers in fresh stucco, they have gone, towed by speculation, along the heights of Montmartre, pitching their tents in those solitudes of carved free-stone, the like of which adorns the European streets of Amsterdam, Milan, Stockholm, London, and Moscow, architectural steppes where the wind rustles innumerable papers on which a void is divulged by the words, Apartments to let.
The situation of these dames is determined by that which they take in the apocryphal regions. If the house is near the line traced by the rue de Provence, the woman has an income, her budget prospers; but if she approaches the farther line of the Boulevard Exterieur or rises towards the horrid town of Batignolles, she is without resources. When Monsieur de Rochefide first encountered Madame Schontz, she lived on the third floor of the only house that remained in the rue de Berlin; thus she was camping on the border-land between misery and its reverse. This person was not really named, as you may suppose, either Schontz or Aurelie. She concealed the name of her father, an old soldier of the Empire, that perennial colonel who always appears at the dawn of all these feminine existences either as father or seducer. Madame Schontz had received the gratuitous education of Saint-Denis, where young girls are admirably brought up, but where, unfortunately, neither husbands nor openings in life are offered to them when they leave the school,—an admirable creation of the Emperor, which now lacks but one thing, the Emperor himself!
"I shall be there, to provide for the daughters of my faithful legions," he replied to a remark of one of his ministers, who foresaw the future.
Napoleon had also said, "I shall be there!" for the members of the Institute; to whom they had better give no salary than send them eighty francs each month, a wage that is less than that of certain clerks!
Aurelie was really the daughter of the intrepid Colonel Schiltz, a leader of those bold Alsacian guerillas who came near saving the Emperor in the campaign of France. He died at Metz,—robbed, pillaged, ruined. In 1814 Napoleon put the little Josephine Schiltz, then about nine years old, at Saint-Denis. Having lost both father and mother and being without a home and without resources, the poor child was not dismissed from the institution on the second return of the Bourbons. She was under-mistress of the school till 1827, but then her patience gave way; her beauty seduced her. When she reached her majority Josephine Schiltz, the Empress's goddaughter, was on the verge of the adventurous life of a courtesan, persuaded to that doubtful future by the fatal example of some of her comrades like herself without resources, who congratulated themselves on their decision. She substituted on for il in her father's name and placed herself under the patronage of Saint-Aurelie.
Lively, witty, and well-educated, she committed more faults than her duller companions, whose misdemeanors had invariably self-interest for their base. After knowing various writers, poor but dishonest, clever but deeply in debt; after trying certain rich men as calculating as they were foolish; and after sacrificing solid interests to one true love,—thus going through all the schools in which experience is taught,—on a certain day of extreme misery, when, at Valentino's (the first stage to Musard) she danced in a gown, hat, and mantle that were all borrowed, she attracted the attention of Arthur de Rochefide, who had come there to see the famous galop. Her cleverness instantly captivated the man who at that time knew not what passion to devote himself to. So that two years after his desertion by Beatrix, the memory of whom often humiliated him, the marquis was not blamed by any one for marrying, so to speak, in the thirteenth arrondissement, a substitute for his wife.
Let us sketch the four periods of this happiness. It is necessary to show that the theory of marriage in the thirteenth arrondissement affects in like manner all who come within its rule. Marquis in the forties, sexagenary retired shopkeeper, quadruple millionnaire or moderate-income man, great seigneur or bourgeois, the strategy of passion (except for the differences inherent in social zones) never varies. The heart and the money-box are always in the same exact and clearly defined relation. Thus informed, you will be able to estimate the difficulties the duchess was certain to encounter in her charitable enterprise.
Who knows the power in France of witty sayings upon ordinary minds, or what harm the clever men who invent them have done? For instance, no book-keeper could add up the figures of the sums remaining unproductive and lost in the depths of generous hearts and strong-boxes by that ignoble phrase, "tirer une carotte!"
The saying has become so popular that it must be allowed to soil this page. Besides, if we penetrate within the 13th arrondissement, we are forced to accept its picturesque patois. Tirer une carotte has a dozen allied meanings, but it suffices to give it here as: To dupe. Monsieur de Rochefide, like all little minds, was terribly afraid of being carotte. The noun has become a verb. From the very start of his passion for Madame Schontz, Arthur was on his guard, and he was, therefore, very rat, to use another word of the same vocabulary. The word rat, when applied to a young girl, means the guest or the one entertained, but applied to a man it signifies the giver of the feast who is niggardly.
Madame Schontz had too much sense and she knew men too well not to conceive great hopes from such a beginning. Monsieur de Rochefide allowed her five hundred francs a month, furnished for her, rather shabbily, an apartment costing twelve hundred francs a year on a second floor in the rue Coquenard, and set himself to study Aurelie's character, while she, perceiving his object, gave him a character to study. Consequently, Rochefide became happy in meeting with a woman of noble nature. But he saw nothing surprising in that; her mother was a Barnheim of Baden, a well-bred woman. Besides, Aurelie was so well brought up herself! Speaking English, German, and Italian, she possessed a thorough knowledge of foreign literatures. She could hold her own against all second-class pianists. And, remark this! she behaved about her talents like a well-bred woman; she never mentioned them. She picked up a brush in a painter's studio, used it half jestingly, and produced a head which caused general astonishment. For mere amusement during the time she pined as under-mistress at Saint-Denis, she had made some advance in the domain of the sciences, but her subsequent life had covered these good seeds with a coating of salt, and she now gave Arthur the credit of the sprouting of the precious germs, re-cultivated for him.
Thus Aurelie began by showing a disinterestedness equal to her other charms, which allowed this weak corvette to attach its grapnels securely to the larger vessel. Nevertheless, about the end of the first year, she made ignoble noises in the antechamber with her clogs, coming in about the time when the marquis was awaiting her, and hiding, as best she could, the draggled tail of an outrageously muddy gown. In short, she had by this time so perfectly persuaded her gros papa that all her ambition, after so many ups and downs, was to obtain honorably a comfortable little bourgeois existence, that, about ten months after their first meeting, the second phase of happiness declared itself.
Madame Schontz then obtained a fine apartment in the rue Neuve-Saint-Georges. Arthur, who could no longer conceal the amount of his fortune, gave her splendid furniture, a complete service of plate, twelve hundred francs a month, a low carriage with one horse,—this, however, was hired; but he granted a tiger very graciously. Madame Schontz was not the least grateful for this munificence; she knew the motive of her Arthur's conduct, and recognized the calculations of the male rat. Sick of living at a restaurant, where the fare is usually execrable, and where the least little gourmet dinner costs sixty francs for one, and two hundred francs if you invite three friends, Rochefide offered Madame Schontz forty francs a day for his dinner and that of a friend, everything included. Aurelie accepted.
Thus having made him take up all her moral letters of credit, drawn one by one on Monsieur de Rochefide's comfort, she was listened to with favor when she asked for five hundred francs more a month for her dress, in order not to shame her gros papa, whose friends all belonged to the Jockey Club.
"It would be a pretty thing," she said, "if Rastignac, Maxime de Trailles, d'Esgrignon, La Roche-Hugon, Ronqueroles, Laginski, Lenoncourt, found you with a sort of Madame Everard. Besides, have confidence in me, papa, and you'll be the gainer."
In fact, Aurelie contrived to display new virtues in this second phase. She laid out for herself a house-keeping role for which she claimed much credit. She made, so she said, both ends meet at the close of the month on two thousand five hundred francs without a debt,—a thing unheard of in the faubourg Saint-Germain of the 13th arrondissement,—and she served dinners infinitely superior to those of Nucingen, at which exquisite wines were drunk at twelve francs a bottle. Rochefide, amazed, and delighted to be able to invite his friends to the house with economy, declared, as he caught her round the waist,—
"She's a treasure!"
Soon after he hired one-third of a box at the Opera for her; next he took her to first representations. Then he began to consult his Aurelie, and recognized the excellence of her advice. She let him take the clever sayings she said about most things for his own, and, these being unknown to others, raised his reputation as an amusing man. He now acquired the certainty of being loved truly, and for himself alone. Aurelie refused to make the happiness of a Russian prince who offered her five thousand francs a month.
"You are a lucky man, my dear marquis," cried old Prince Galathionne as he finished his game of whist at the club. "Yesterday, after you left us alone, I tried to get Madame Schontz away from you, but she said: 'Prince, you are not handsomer, but you are a great deal older than Rochefide; you would beat me, but he is like a father to me; can you give me one-tenth of a reason why I should change? I've never had the grand passion for Arthur that I once had for little fools in varnished boots and whose debts I paid; but I love him as a wife loves her husband when she is an honest woman.' And thereupon she showed me the door."
This speech, which did not seem exaggerated, had the effect of greatly increasing the state of neglect and degradation which reigned in the hotel de Rochefide. Arthur now transported his whole existence and his pleasures to Madame Schontz, and found himself well off; for at the end of three years he had four hundred thousand francs to invest.
The third phase now began. Madame Schontz became the tenderest of mothers to Arthur's son; she fetched him from school and took him back herself; she overwhelmed with presents and dainties and pocket-money the child who called her his "little mamma," and who adored her. She took part in the management of Arthur's property; she made him buy into the Funds when low, just before the famous treaty of London which overturned the ministry of March 1st. Arthur gained two hundred thousand francs by that transaction and Aurelie did not ask for a penny of it. Like the gentleman that he was, Rochefide invested his six hundred thousand francs in stock of the Bank of France and put half of that sum in the name of Josephine Schiltz. A little house was now hired in the rue de La Bruyere and given to Grindot, that great decorative architect, with orders to make it a perfect bonbon-box.
Henceforth, Rochefide no longer managed his affairs. Madame Schontz received the revenues and paid the bills. Become, as it were, practically his wife, his woman of business, she justified the position by making her gros papa more comfortable than ever; she had learned all his fancies, and gratified them as Madame de Pompadour gratified those of Louis XV. In short, Madame Schontz reigned an absolute mistress. She then began to patronize a few young men, artists, men of letters, new-fledged to fame, who rejected both ancients and moderns, and strove to make themselves a great reputation by accomplishing little or nothing.
The conduct of Madame Schontz, a triumph of tactics, ought to reveal to you her superiority. In the first place, these ten or a dozen young fellows amused Arthur; they supplied him with witty sayings and clever opinions on all sorts of topics, and did not put in doubt the fidelity of the mistress; moreover, they proclaimed her a woman who was eminently intelligent. These living advertisements, these perambulating articles, soon set up Madame Schontz as the most agreeable woman to be found in the borderland which separates the thirteenth arrondissement from the twelve others. Her rivals—Suzanne Gaillard, who, in 1838, had won the advantage over her of becoming a wife married in legitimate marriage, Fanny Beaupre, Mariette, Antonia—spread calumnies that were more than droll about the beauty of those young men and the complacent good-nature with which Monsieur de Rochefide welcomed them. Madame Schontz, who could distance, as she said, by three blagues the wit of those ladies, said to them one night at a supper given by Nathan to Florine, after recounting her fortune and her success, "Do as much yourselves!"—a speech which remained in their memory.
It was during this period that Madame Schontz made Arthur sell his race-horses, through a series of considerations which she no doubt derived from the critical mind of Claude Vignon, one of her habitues.
"I can conceive," she said one night, after lashing the horses for some time with her lively wit, "that princes and rich men should set their hearts on horse-flesh, but only for the good of the country, not for the paltry satisfactions of a betting man. If you had a stud farm on your property and could raise a thousand or twelve hundred horses, and if all the horses of France and of Navarre could enter into one great solemn competition, it would be fine; but you buy animals as the managers of theatres trade in artists; you degrade an institution to a gambling game; you make a Bourse of legs, as you make a Bourse of stocks. It is unworthy. Don't you spend sixty thousand francs sometimes merely to read in the newspapers: 'Lelia, belonging to Monsieur de Rochefide beat by a length Fleur-de-Genet the property of Monsieur le Duc de Rhetore'? You had much better give that money to poets, who would carry you in prose and verse to immortality, like the late Montyon."
By dint of being prodded, the marquis was brought to see the hollowness of the turf; he realized that economy of sixty thousand francs; and the next year Madame Schontz remarked to him,—
"I don't cost you anything now, Arthur."
Many rich men envied the marquis and endeavored to entice Madame Schontz away from him, but like the Russian prince they wasted their old age.
"Listen to me," she said to Finot, now become immensely rich. "I am certain that Rochefide would forgive me a little passion if I fell in love with any one, but one doesn't leave a marquis with a kind heart like that for a parvenu like you. You couldn't keep me in the position in which Arthur has placed me; he has made me half a wife and a lady, and that's more than you could do even if you married me."
This was the last nail which clinched the fetters of that happy galley-slave, for the speech of course reached the ears for which it was intended.
The fourth phase had begun, that of habit, the final victory in these plans of campaign, which make the women of this class say of a man, "I hold him!" Rochefide, who had just bought the little hotel in the name of Mademoiselle Josephine Schiltz (a trifle of eighty thousand francs), had reached, at the moment the Duchesse de Grandlieu was forming plans about him, the stage of deriving vanity from his mistress (whom he now called Ninon II.), by vaunting her scrupulous honesty, her excellent manners, her education, and her wit. He had merged his own defects, merits, tastes, and pleasures in Madame Schontz, and he found himself at this period of his life, either from lassitude, indifference, or philosophy, a man unable to change, who clings to wife or mistress.
We may understand the position won in five years by Madame Schontz from the fact that presentation at her house had to be proposed some time before it was granted. She refused to receive dull rich people and smirched people; and only departed from this rule in favor of certain great names of the aristocracy.
"They," she said, "have a right to be stupid because they are well-bred."
She possessed ostensibly the three hundred thousand francs which Rochefide had given her, and which a certain good fellow, a broker named Gobenheim (the only man of that class admitted to her house) invested and reinvested for her. But she manipulated for herself secretly a little fortune of two hundred thousand francs, the result of her savings for the last three years and of the constant movement of the three hundred thousand francs,—for she never admitted the possession of more than that known sum.
"The more you make, the less you get rich," said Gobenheim to her one day.
"Water is so dear," she answered.
This secret hoard was increased by jewels and diamonds, which Aurelie wore a month and then sold. When any one called her rich, Madame Schontz replied that at the rate of interest in the Funds three hundred thousand francs produced only twelve thousand, and she had spent as much as that in the hardest days of her life.
- Before 1859 there was no 13th arrondissement in Paris, hence the saying.—TR.