THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL RELATIONS AND POSITION
In accordance with the advice of the Abbe Brossette the Duchesse de Grandlieu asked the Marquis d'Ajuda to bring her that king of political cut-throats, the celebrated Comte Maxime de Trailles, archduke of Bohemia, the youngest of young men, though he was now fully fifty years of age. Monsieur d'Ajuda arranged to dine with Maxime at the club in the rue de Beuane, and proposed to him after dinner to go and play dummy whist with the Duc de Grandlieu, who had an attack of gout and was all alone.
Though the son-in-law of the duke and the cousin of the duchess had every right to present him in a salon where he had never yet set foot, Maxime de Trailles did not deceive himself as to the meaning of an invitation thus given. He felt certain that the duke or the duchess had some need of him. Club life where men play cards with other men whom they do not receive in their own houses is by no means one of the most trifling signs of the present age.
The Duc de Grandlieu did Maxime the honor of appearing to suffer from his gout. After several games of whist he went to bed, leaving his wife tete-a-tete with Maxime and d'Ajuda. The duchess, seconded by the marquis, communicated her project to Monsieur de Trailles, and asked his assistance, while ostensibly asking only for his advice. Maxime listened to the end without committing himself, and waited till the duchess should ask point-blank for his co-operation before replying.
"Madame, I fully understand you," he then said, casting on her and the marquis one of those shrewd, penetrating, astute, comprehensive glances by which such great scamps compromise their interlocutors. "D'Ajuda will tell you that if any one in Paris can conduct that difficult negotiation, it is I,—of course without mixing you up in it; without its being even known that I have come here this evening. Only, before anything is done, we must settle preliminaries. How much are you willing to sacrifice?"
"All that is necessary."
"Very well, then, Madame la duchesse. As the price of my efforts you must do me the honor to receive in your house and seriously protect Madame la Comtesse de Trailles."
"What! are you married?" cried d'Ajuda.
"I shall be married within a fortnight to the heiress of a rich but extremely bourgeois family,—a sacrifice to opinion! I imbibe the very spirit of my government, and start upon a new career. Consequently, Madame la duchesse will understand how important it is to me to have my wife adopted by her and by her family. I am certain of being made deputy by the resignation of my father-in-law, and I am promised a diplomatic post in keeping with my new fortune. I do not see why my wife should not be as well received as Madame de Portenduere in that society of young women which includes Mesdames de la Bastie, Georges de Maufrigneuse, de L'Estorade, du Guenic, d'Ajuda, de Restaud, de Rastignac, de Vandenesse. My wife is pretty, and I will undertake to un-cotton-night-cap her. Will this suit you, Madame la duchesse? You are religious, and if you say yes, your promise, which I know to be sacred, will greatly aid in my change of life. It will be one more good action to your account. Alas! I have long been the king of mauvais sujets, and I want to make an end of it. After all, we bear, azure, a wivern or, darting fire, ongle gules, and scaled vert, a chief ermine, from the time of Francois I., who thought proper to ennoble the valet of Louis XI., and we have been counts since Catherine de' Medici."
"I will receive and protect your wife," said the duchess, solemnly, "and my family will not turn its back upon her; I give you my word."
"Ah! Madame la duchesse," cried Maxime, visibly touched, "if Monsieur le duc would also deign to treat me with some kindness, I promise you to make your plan succeed without its costing you very much. But," he continued after a pause, "you must take upon yourself to follow my instructions. This is the last intrigue of my bachelor life; it must be all the better managed because it concerns a good action," he added, smiling.
"Follow your instructions!" said the duchess. "Then I must appear in all this."
"Ah! madame, I will not compromise you," cried Maxime. "I esteem you too much to demand guarantees. I merely mean that you must follow my advice. For example, it will be necessary that du Guenic be taken away by his wife for at least two years; she must show him Switzerland, Italy, Germany,—in short, all possible countries."
"Ah! you confirm a fear of my director," said the duchess, naively, remembering the judicious objection of the Abbe Brossette.
Maxime and d'Ajuda could not refrain from smiling at the idea of this agreement between heaven and hell.
"To prevent Madame de Rochefide from ever seeing Calyste again," she continued, "we will all travel, Juste and his wife, Calyste, Sabine, and I. I will leave Clotilde with her father—"
"It is too soon to sing victory, madame," said Maxime. "I foresee enormous difficulties; though I shall no doubt vanquish them. Your esteem and your protection are rewards which would make me commit the vilest actions, but these will be—"
"The vilest actions!" cried the duchess, interrupting this modern condottiere, and showing on her countenance as much disgust as amazement.
"And you would share them, madame, inasmuch as I am only your agent. But are you ignorant of the degree of blindness to which Madame de Rochefide has brought your son-in-law? I know it from Canalis and Nathan, between whom she was hesitating when Calyste threw himself into the lioness's jaws. Beatrix has contrived to persuade that serious Breton that she has never loved any one but him; that she is virtuous; that Conti was merely a sentimental head-love in which neither the heart nor the rest of it had any part,—a musical love, in short! As for Rochefide, that was duty. So, you understand, she is virgin!—a fact she proves by forgetting her son, whom for more than a year she has not made the slightest attempt to see. The truth is, the little count will soon be twelve years old, and he finds in Madame Schontz a mother who is all the more a mother because maternity is, as you know, a passion with women of that sort. Du Guenic would let himself be cut in pieces, and would chop up his wife for Beatrix; and you think it is an easy matter to drag a man from the depths of such credulity! Ah! madame, Shakespeare's Iago would lose all his handkerchiefs. People think that Othello, or his younger brother, Orosmanes, or Saint-Preux, Rene, Werther, and other lovers now in possession of fame, represented love! Never did their frosty-hearted fathers know what absolute love is; Moliere alone conceived it. Love, Madame la duchesse, is not loving a noble woman, a Clarissa—a great effort, faith! Love is to say to one's self: 'She whom I love is infamous; she deceives me, she will deceive me; she is an abandoned creature, she smells of the frying of hell-fire;' but we rush to her, we find there the blue of heaven, the flowers of Paradise. That is how Moliere loved, and how we, scamps that we are! how we love. As for me, I weep at the great scene of Arnolphe. Now, that is how your son-in-law loves Beatrix. I shall have trouble separating Rochefide from Madame Schontz; but Madame Schontz will no doubt lend herself to the plot; I shall study her interior. But as for Calyste and Beatrix, they will need the blows of an axe, far deeper treachery, and so base an infamy that your virtuous imagination could never descend to it—unless indeed your director gave you a hand. You have asked the impossible, you shall be obeyed. But in spite of my settled intention to war with fire and sword, I cannot absolutely promise you success. I have known lovers who did not recoil before the most awful disillusions. You are too virtuous to know the full power of women who are not virtuous."
"Do not enter upon those infamous actions until I have consulted the Abbe Brossette to know how far I may be your accomplice," cried the duchess, with a naivete which disclosed what selfishness there is in piety.
"You shall be ignorant of everything, my dear mother," interposed d'Ajuda.
On the portico, while the carriage of the marquis was drawing up, d'Ajuda said to Maxime:—
"You frightened that good duchess."
"But she has no idea of the difficulty of what she asks. Let us go to the Jockey Club; Rochefide must invite me to dine with Madame Schontz to-morrow, for to-night my plan will be made, and I shall have chosen the pawns on my chess-board to carry it out. In the days of her splendor Beatrix refused to receive me; I intend to pay off that score, and I will avenge your sister-in-law so cruelly that perhaps she will find herself too well revenged."
The next day Rochefide told Madame Schontz that Maxime de Trailles was coming to dinner. That meant notifying her to display all her luxury, and prepare the choicest food for this connoisseur emeritus, whom all the women of the Madame Schontz type were in awe of. Madame Schontz herself thought as much of her toilet as of putting her house in a state to receive this personage.
In Paris there are as many royalties as there are varieties of art, mental and moral specialties, sciences, professions; the strongest and most capable of the men who practise them has a majesty which is all his own; he is appreciated, respected by his peers, who know the difficulties of his art or profession, and whose admiration is given to the man who surmounts them. Maxime was, in the eyes of rats and courtesans, an extremely powerful and capable man, who had known how to make himself excessively loved. He was also admired by men who knew how difficult it is to live in Paris on good terms with creditors; in short, he had never had any other rival in elegance, deportment, and wit than the illustrious de Marsay, who frequently employed him on political missions. All this will suffice to explain his interview with the duchess, his prestige with Madame Schontz, and the authority of his words in a conference which he intended to have on the boulevard des Italiens with a young man already well-known, though lately arrived, in the Bohemia of Paris.