Bel Ami/Chapter XV
Morocco had been conquered; France, the mistress of Tangiers, had guaranteed the debt of the annexed country. It was rumored that two ministers, Laroche-Mathieu being one of them, had made twenty millions.
As for Walter, in a few days he had become one of the masters of the world--a financier more omnipotent than a king. He was no longer the Jew, Walter, the director of a bank, the proprietor of a yellow newspaper; he was M. Walter the wealthy Israelite, and he wished to prove it.
Knowing the straitened circumstances of the Prince de Carlsbourg who owned one of the fairest mansions on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, he proposed to buy it. He offered three million francs for it. The prince, tempted by the sum, accepted his offer; the next day, Walter took possession of his new dwelling. Then another idea occurred to him--an idea of conquering all Paris--an idea a la Bonaparte.
At that time everyone was raving over a painting by the Hungarian, Karl Marcovitch, exhibited by Jacques Lenoble and representing "Christ Walking on the Water." Art critics enthusiastically declared it to be the most magnificent painting of the age. Walter bought it, thereby causing entire Paris to talk of him, to envy him, to censure or approve his action. He issued an announcement in the papers that everyone was invited to come on a certain evening to see it.
Du Roy was jealous of M. Walter's success. He had thought himself wealthy with the five hundred thousand francs extorted from his wife, and now he felt poor as he compared his paltry fortune with the shower of millions around him. His envious rage increased daily. He cherished ill will toward everyone--toward the Walters, even toward his wife, and above all toward the man who had deceived him, made use of him, and who dined twice a week at his house. Georges acted as his secretary, agent, mouthpiece, and when he wrote at his dictation, he felt a mad desire to strangle him. Laroche reigned supreme in the Du Roy household, having taken the place of Count de Vaudrec; he spoke to the servants as if he were their master. Georges submitted to it all, like a dog which wishes to bite and dares not. But he was often harsh and brutal to Madeleine, who merely shrugged her shoulders and treated him as one would a fretful child. She was surprised, too, at his constant ill humor, and said: "I do not understand you. You are always complaining. Your position is excellent."
His only reply was to turn his back upon her. He declared that he would not attend M. Walter's fete--that he would not cross the miserable Jew's threshold. For two months Mme. Walter had written to him daily, beseeching him to come to see her, to appoint a meeting where he would, in order that she might give him the seventy thousand francs she had made for him. He did not reply and threw her letters into the fire. Not that he would have refused to accept his share of the profits, but he enjoyed treating her scornfully, trampling her under foot; she was too wealthy; he would be inflexible.
The day of the exhibition of the picture, as Madeleine chided him for not going, he replied: "Leave me in peace. I shall remain at home."
After they had dined, he said suddenly, "I suppose I shall have to go through with it. Get ready quickly."
"I shall be ready in fifteen minutes," she said.
As they entered the courtyard of the Hotel de Carlsbourg it was one blaze of light. A magnificent carpet was spread upon the steps leading to the entrance, and upon each one stood a man in livery, as rigid as marble.
Du Roy's heart was torn with jealousy. He and his wife ascended the steps and gave their wraps to the footmen who approached them.
At the entrance to the drawing-room, two children, one in pink, the other in blue, handed bouquets to the ladies.
The rooms were already well filled. The majority of the ladies were in street costumes, a proof that they came thither as they would go to any exhibition. The few who intended to remain to the ball which was to follow wore evening dress.
Mme. Walter, surrounded by friends, stood in the second salon and received the visitors. Many did not know her, and walked through the rooms as if in a museum--without paying any heed to the host and hostess.
When Virginie perceived Du Roy, she grew livid and made a movement toward him; then she paused and waited for him to advance. He bowed ceremoniously, while Madeleine greeted her effusively. Georges left his wife near Mme. Walter and mingled with the guests. Five drawing-rooms opened one into the other; they were carpeted with rich, oriental rugs, and upon their walls hung paintings by the old masters. As he made his way through the throng, some one seized his arm, and a fresh, youthful voice whispered in his ear: "Ah, here you are at last, naughty Bel-Ami! Why do we never see you any more?"
It was Suzanne Walter, with her azure eyes and wealth of golden hair. He was delighted to see her, and apologized as they shook hands.
"I have been so busy for two months that I have been nowhere."
She replied gravely: "That is too bad. You have grieved us deeply, for mamma and I adore you. As for myself, I cannot do without you. If you are not here, I am bored to death. You see I tell you so frankly, that you will not remain away like that any more. Give me your arm; I will show you 'Christ Walking on the Water' myself; it is at the very end, behind the conservatory. Papa put it back there so that everyone would be obliged to go through the rooms. It is astonishing how proud papa is of this house."
As they walked through the rooms, all turned to look at that handsome man and that bewitching girl. A well-known painter said: "There is a fine couple." Georges thought: "If my position had been made, I would have married her. Why did I never think of it? How could I have taken the other one? What folly! One always acts too hastily--one never reflects sufficiently." And longing, bitter longing possessed him, corrupting all his pleasure, rendering life odious.
Suzanne said: "You must come often, Bel-Ami; we can do anything we like now papa is rich."
He replied: "Oh, you will soon marry--some prince, perhaps, and we shall never meet any more."
She cried frankly: "Oh, oh, I shall not! I shall choose some one I love very dearly. I am rich enough for two."
He smiled ironically and said: "I give you six months. By that time you will be Madame la Marquise, Madame la Duchesse, or Madame la Princesse, and you will look down upon me, Mademoiselle."
She pretended to be angry, patted his arm with her fan, and vowed that she would marry according to the dictates of her heart.
He replied: "We shall see; you are too wealthy."
"You, too, have inherited some money."
"Barely twenty thousand livres a year. It is a mere pittance nowadays."
"But your wife has the same."
"Yes, we have a million together; forty thousand a year. We cannot even keep a carriage on that."
They had, in the meantime, reached the last drawing-room, and before them lay the conservatory with its rare shrubs and plants. To their left, under a dome of palms, was a marble basin, on the edges of which four large swans of delftware emitted the water from their beaks.
The journalist stopped and said to himself: "This is luxury; this is the kind of house in which to live. Why can I not have one?"
His companion did not speak. He looked at her and thought once more: "If I only had taken her!"
Suddenly Suzanne seemed to awaken from her reverie. "Come," said she, dragging Georges through a group which barred their way, and turning him to the right. Before him, surrounded by verdure on all sides, was the picture. One had to look closely at it in order to understand it. It was a grand work--the work of a master--one of those triumphs of art which furnishes one for years with food for thought.
Du Roy gazed at it for some time, and then turned away, to make room for others. Suzanne's tiny hand still rested upon his arm. She asked:
"Would you like a glass of champagne? We will go to the buffet; we shall find papa there."
Slowly they traversed the crowded rooms. Suddenly Georges heard a voice say: "That is Laroche and Mme. du Roy."
He turned and saw his wife passing upon the minister's arm. They were talking in low tones and smiling into each other's eyes. He fancied he saw some people whisper, as they gazed at them, and he felt a desire to fall upon those two beings and smite them to the earth. His wife was making a laughing-stock of him. Who was she? A shrewd little parvenue, that was all. He could never make his way with a wife who compromised him. She would be a stumbling-block in his path. Ah, if he had foreseen, if he had known. He would have played for higher stakes. What a brilliant match he might have made with little Suzanne! How could he have been so blind?
They reached the dining-room with its marble columns and walls hung with old Gobelins tapestry. Walter spied his editor, and hastened to shake hands. He was beside himself with joy. "Have you seen everything? Say, Suzanne, have you shown him everything? What a lot of people, eh? Have you seen Prince de Guerche? he just drank a glass of punch." Then he pounced upon Senator Rissolin and his wife.
A gentleman greeted Suzanne--a tall, slender man with fair whiskers and a worldly air. Georges heard her call him Marquis de Cazolles, and he was suddenly inspired with jealousy. How long had she known him? Since she had become wealthy no doubt. He saw in him a possible suitor. Some one seized his arm. It was Norbert de Varenne. The old poet said: "This is what they call amusing themselves. After a while they will dance, then they will retire, and the young girls will be satisfied. Take some champagne; it is excellent."
Georges scarcely heard his words. He was looking for Suzanne, who had gone off with the Marquis de Cazolles; he left Norbert de Varenne abruptly and went in pursuit of the young girl. The thirsty crowd stopped him; when he had made his way through it, he found himself face to face with M. and Mme. de Marelle. He had often met the wife, but he had not met the husband for some time; the latter grasped both of his hands and thanked him for the message he had sent him by Clotilde relative to the stocks.
Du Roy replied: "In exchange for that service I shall take your wife, or rather offer her my arm. Husband and wife should always be separated."
M. de Marelle bowed. "Very well. If I lose you we can meet here again in an hour."
The two young people disappeared in the crowd, followed by the husband. Mme. de Marelle said: "There are two girls who will have twenty or thirty millions each, and Suzanne is pretty in the bargain."
He made no reply; his own thought coming from the lips of another irritated him. He took Clotilde to see the painting. As they crossed the conservatory he saw his wife seated near Laroche-Mathieu, both of them almost hidden behind a group of plants. They seemed to say: "We are having a meeting in public, for we do not care for the world's opinion."
Mme. de Marelle admired Karl Marcovitch's painting, and they turned to repair to the other rooms. They were separated from M. de Marelle. He asked: "Is Laurine still vexed with me?"
"Yes. She refuses to see you and goes away when you are mentioned."
He did not reply. The child's sudden enmity grieved and annoyed him.
Suzanne met them at a door and cried: "Oh, here you are! Now, Bel-Ami, you are going to be left alone, for I shall take Clotilde to see my room." And the two women glided through the throng. At that moment a voice at his side murmured: "Georges!"
It was Mme. Walter. She continued in a low voice: "How cruel you are! How needlessly you inflict suffering upon me. I bade Suzanne take that woman away that I might have a word with you. Listen: I must speak to you this evening--or--or--you do not know what I shall do. Go into the conservatory. You will find a door to the left through which you can reach the garden. Follow the walk directly in front of you. At the end of it you will see an arbor. Expect me in ten minutes. If you do not meet me, I swear I will cause a scandal here at once!"
He replied haughtily: "Very well, I shall be at the place you named in ten minutes."
But Jacques Rival detained him. When he reached the alley, he saw Mme. Walter in front of him; she cried: "Ah, here you are! Do you wish to kill me?"
He replied calmly: "I beseech you, none of that, or I shall leave you at once."
Throwing her arms around his neck, she exclaimed: "What have I done to you that you should treat me so?"
He tried to push her away: "You twisted your hair around my coat buttons the last time we met, and it caused trouble between my wife and myself."
She shook her head: "Ah, your wife would not care. It was one of your mistresses who made a scene."
"I have none."
"Indeed! Why do you never come to see me? Why do you refuse to dine with me even once a week? I have no other thoughts than of you. I suffer terribly. You cannot understand that your image, always present, closes my throat, stifles me, and leaves me scarcely strength enough to move my limbs in order to walk. So I remain all day in my chair thinking of you."
He looked at her in astonishment. These were the words of a desperate woman, capable of anything. He, however, cherished a vague project and replied: "My dear, love is not eternal. One loves and one ceases to love. When it lasts it becomes a drawback. I want none of it! However, if you will be reasonable, and will receive and treat me as a friend, I will come to see you as formerly. Can you do that?"
She murmured: "I can do anything in order to see you."
"Then it is agreed that we are to be friends, nothing more."
She gasped: "It is agreed"; offering him her lips she cried in her despair: "One more kiss--one last kiss!"
He gently drew back. "No, we must adhere to our rules."
She turned her head and wiped away two tears, then drawing from her bosom a package of notes tied with pink ribbon, she held it toward Du Roy: "Here is your share of the profits in that Moroccan affair. I was so glad to make it for you. Here, take it."
He refused: "No, I cannot accept that money."
She became excited: "Oh, you will not refuse it now! It is yours, yours alone. If you do not take it, I will throw it in the sewer. You will not refuse it, Georges!"
He took the package and slipped it into his pocket "We must return to the house; you will take cold."
"So much the better; if I could but die!"
She seized his hand, kissed it passionately, and fled toward the house. He returned more leisurely, and entered the conservatory with head erect and smiling lips. His wife and Laroche were no longer there. The crowd had grown thinner. Suzanne, leaning on her sister's arm, advanced toward him. In a few moments, Rose, whom they teased about a certain Count, turned upon her heel and left them.
Du Roy, finding himself alone with Suzanne, said in a caressing voice: "Listen, my dear little one; do you really consider me a friend?"
"Why, yes, Bel-Ami."
"You have faith in me?"
"Do you remember what I said to you a while since?"
"About your marriage, or rather the man you would marry."
"Well, will you promise me one thing?"
"Yes; what is it?"
"To consult me when you receive a proposal and to accept no one without asking my advice."
"Yes, I will gladly."
"And it is to be a secret between us--not a word to your father or mother."
"Not a word."
Rival approached them saying: "Mademoiselle, your father wants you in the ballroom."
She said: "Come, Bel-Ami," but he refused, for he had decided to leave at once, wishing to be alone with his thoughts. He went in search of his wife, and found her drinking chocolate at the buffet with two strange men. She introduced her husband without naming them.
In a short while, he asked: "Shall we go?"
"Whenever you like."
She took his arm and they passed through the almost deserted rooms.
Madeleine asked: "Where is Mme. Walter; I should like to bid her good-bye."
"It is unnecessary. She would try to keep us in the ballroom, and I have had enough."
"You are right."
On the way home they did not speak. But when they had entered their room, Madeleine, without even taking off her veil, said to him with a smile: "I have a surprise for you."
He growled ill-naturedly: "What is it?"
"I cannot make the effort."
"The day after to-morrow is the first of January."
"It is the season for New Year's gifts."
"Here is yours, which Laroche handed me just now." She gave him a small black box which resembled a jewel-casket.
He opened it indifferently and saw the cross of the Legion of Honor. He turned a trifle pale, then smiled, and said: "I should have preferred ten millions. That did not cost him much."
She had expected a transport of delight and was irritated by his indifference.
"You are incomprehensible. Nothing seems to satisfy you."
He replied calmly: "That man is only paying his debts; he owes me a great deal more."
She was astonished at his tone, and said: "It is very nice, however, at your age."
He replied: "I should have much more."
He took the casket, placed it on the mantelpiece, and looked for some minutes at the brilliant star within it, then he closed it with a shrug of his shoulders and began to prepare to retire.
"L'Officiel" of January 1 announced that M. Prosper Georges du Roy had been decorated with the Legion of Honor for exceptional services. The name was written in two words, and that afforded Georges more pleasure than the decoration itself.
An hour after having read that notice, he received a note from Mme. Walter, inviting him to come and bring his wife to dine with them that evening, to celebrate his distinction.
At first he hesitated, then throwing the letter in the fire, he said to Madeleine: "We shall dine at the Walters' this evening."
In her surprise she exclaimed: "Why, I thought you would never set your foot in their house again."
His sole reply was: "I have changed my mind."
When they arrived at Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, they found Mme. Walter alone in the dainty boudoir in which she received her intimate friends. She was dressed in black and her hair was powdered. At a distance she appeared like an old lady, in proximity, like a youthful one.
"Are you in mourning?" asked, Madeleine.
She replied sadly: "Yes and no. I have lost none of my relatives, but I have arrived at an age when one should wear somber colors. I wear it to-day to inaugurate it; hitherto I have worn it in my heart."
The dinner was somewhat tedious. Suzanne alone talked incessantly. Rose seemed preoccupied. The journalist was overwhelmed with congratulations, after the meal, when all repaired to the drawing-rooms. Mme. Walter detained him as they were about to enter the salon, saying: "I will never speak of anything to you again, only come to see me, Georges. It is impossible for me to live without you. I see you, I feel you, in my heart all day and all night. It is as if I had drunk a poison which preyed upon me. I cannot bear it. I would rather be as an old woman to you. I powdered my hair for that reason to-night; but come here--come from time to time as a friend."
He replied calmly: "Very well. It is unnecessary to speak of it again. You see I came to-day on receipt of your letter."
Walter, who had preceded them, with his two daughters and Madeleine, awaited Du Roy near the picture of "Christ Walking on the Water."
"Only think," said he, "I found my wife yesterday kneeling before that painting as if in a chapel. She was praying!"
Mme. Walter replied in a firm voice, in a voice in which vibrated a secret exaltation: "That Christ will save my soul. He gives me fresh courage and strength every time that I look at Him." And pausing before the picture, she murmured: "How beautiful He is! How frightened those men are, and how they love Him! Look at His head, His eyes, how simple and supernatural He is at the same time!"
Suzanne cried: "Why, He looks like you, Bel-Ami! I am sure He looks like you. The resemblance is striking."
She made him stand beside the painting and everyone recognized the likeness. Du Roy was embarrassed. Walter thought it very singular; Madeleine, with a smile, remarked that Jesus looked more manly. Mme. Walter stood by motionless, staring fixedly at her lover's face, her cheeks as white as her hair.