Honoré de Balzac/Chapter 6

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After the publication of the Physiology and The Magic Skin, which followed The Chouans and Scenes from Private Life, Balzac found himself enrolled among the fashionable novelists. The public did not understand his ideas, they were incapable of grasping the grandeur of the vast edifice which he already dreamed of raising to his own glory, but they enjoyed his penetrating analysis of the human heart, his understanding of women, and his picturesque, alluring and dramatic power of narrative. He excited the curiosity of his women readers, who recognised themselves in his heroines as in so many faithful mirrors; and the consequence was that he was besieged by a host of feminine letters. Balzac had a perfumed casket in which he put away the confidences, avowals and advances of his fair admirers, but he did not reply to them.

In September, 1831, however, an unsigned letter arrived at the chateau at Sache, where he had been spending his vacation; but, as he had already left, it was forwarded to him in Paris. It was distinguished by its refinement of tone, its cleverness and its frank and discerning criticisms of the Physiology and The Magic Skin,—so much so, indeed, that Balzac decided to answer its attacks upon him by defending his works and explaining his ideas. There followed a second letter and then others, and before long a correspondence had been established between Balzac and the unknown lady, so fascinating on her side of it that Balzac was eager to know her name, and demanded it, under penalty of breaking off the whole correspondence. She willingly revealed her identity, she was the Duchesse de Castries. She informed him further that it would give her pleasure to have him call upon her, in the Rue de Varennes, on the day when she received her intimate friends. Balzac, no doubt, gave utterance to his great, joyous, triumphant laugh, in which there was also mingled a touch of pride.

Mme. de Castries was one of the most highly courted ladies in the exclusive circle of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, an aristocrat of aristocrats; she was still young,—her age was thirty-five,—and beautiful, with pale and delicate features, crowned with masses of hair of a dazzling Venetian blonde. She was a descendant of the de Maille family, her husband had been a peer of France under Charles X, and through marriage with the Duc de Fitz-James, one of the leaders of the legitimist party, was her brother-in-law, thus connecting her with the highest nobility of France. To Balzac she represented the doorway to a world of which he had had only vague glimpses as reflected in the reminiscences of Mme. de Berny,—and she smiled upon him with a mysterious smile of welcome.

The novelist hastened to accept the Duchess's invitation, and became one of the regular frequenters of her salon. She led him on; and he talked of his ideas, his projects and his dreams. He also talked discreetly of his heart, and without encouraging him, she allowed him to understand that she listened to him without displeasure. His relations with Mme. de Berny had been tinged with a sort of bitterness, due to the disparity in their ages, and his happiness had never been complete. These relations were now about to come to a close, yet even after the rupture they were destined to remain like a single soul, united by a profound and lasting affection, beyond the reach of any severance. Be that as it may, Balzac at this period was audaciously planning another conquest, and a dazzling one, more brilliant than his most ambitious hopes could have wished. So the pretty game continued, half in sport and half in earnest.

Whether it was due solely to the influence of the duchess or whether a certain amount of calculation entered in, since literary success is judged by the money profits and the expenditures and fashionable appearance of the writer, or whether he also obeyed his own fondness for a broad and sumptuous scale of living, no one knows; probably something of all three entered in; but the fact remains that after he knew Mme. de Castries Balzac became transformed into a dandy, a man of fashion. He was a lion in that circle of gilded youth which frequented the Opera and the Bouffes, that shone in famous salons, that diverted itself in cabarets, and distinguished itself by wealth, gallantry and impertinence.

Balzac now had money. He possessed an unusual faculty for disposing of his copy advantageously. To begin with, he was paid by the magazines to which he gave the first serial rights, the Revue de Paris and the Revue des Deux Mondes; and, secondly, in disposing of the book rights he never gave his publishers more than the right to bring out one edition and for a limited time; and the result was that frequent new editions, either of single works or groups of works, taken together with his new works, formed altogether a considerable production of volumes. Furthermore, he received advances from publishers and editors, he trafficked in endorsed notes, he borrowed and lived on credit. This was in a measure the prosperity that he had so greatly coveted, yet he gained it at the cost of countless toil, activity and worriment.

Balzac now acquired carriages and horses, he had a cabriolet and a tilbury painted maroon; his coachman was enormous and was named Leclercq, while the groom was a dwarf whom he called Anchises. He engaged servants, a cook and a valet named Paradis. He patronised the most fashionable tailor of the time, and dressed in accordance with the decrees of the latest style. Mme. Ancelot states that he ordered no less than thirty-one waistcoats, and that he had not given up the hope of some day having three hundred and sixty-five, one for each day in the year. He abandoned wool in favour of silk. Rings adorned his fingers; his linen was of the finest quality; and he used perfumes, of which he was passionately fond.

In the morning he went to the Bois, where the other young men of fashion congregated; he sauntered up and down and later paid visits; in the evening, when he had no invitations to social functions, he dined at the Rocher de Cancale or at Bignon's, or showed himself at the Opera in the box occupied by an ultra-fashionable set known as the "Tigers." After the performance he hurried off to cut a brilliant figure at the salon of the beautiful Delphine Gay, the wife of Emile de Girardin, in company with Lautour-Mezeray, the "man with the camelia," Alphonse Karr, Eugene Sue, Dumas, and sometimes Victor Hugo and Lamartine. In that celebrated apartment, hung in sea-green damask, which formed such a perfect background for Delphine's blonde beauty, Balzac would arrive exuberant, resplendent with health and happiness, and there he would remain for hours, overflowing with wit and brilliance.

In the midst of this worldly life he by no means neglected Mme. de Castries, but, on the contrary, was assiduous in his attentions to the fair duchess. At her home he met the Duc de Fitz-James and the other leaders of militant legitimism, and little by little he gravitated towards their party. He wrote The Life of a Woman for Le Renovateur, and also an essay in two parts on The Situation of the Royalist Party; but it was not long before he quarrelled with Laurentie, the editor in chief who probably wounded his pride as a man of letters.

The society which he frequented must have reacted on Balzac, for it was at this time that he conceived the desire of proving himself a gentleman by descent, the issue of a time-honoured stock, the d'Antragues family. He adopted their coat-of-arms and had his monogram surmounted by a coronet. Later on he abandoned these pretensions, and his forceful and proud reply is well known when some one had proved to him that he had no connection with any branch of that house:

"Very well, so much the worse for them!"

But meanwhile, how about his work? It is not known by what prodigy Balzac kept at his task, in spite of this busy life of fashion and frivolity. He published The Purse, Mme. Firmiani, A Study of a Woman, The Message, La Grenadiere, The Forsaken Woman, Colonel Chabert (which appeared in L'Artiste under the title of Transaction), The Vicar of Tours, and he composed that mystical work which cost him so much pains that he almost succumbed to it, the Biographical Notice of Louis Lambert. At the same time he corrected, improved and partly rewrote The Chouans and the newly published Magic Skin, with a view to new editions, in accordance with the criticisms of his sister Laure and Mme. de Berny.

Nevertheless, money continued to evaporate under his prodigal fingers; he had counted upon revenues which failed to materialise, he could no longer borrow, for his credit was exhausted, and he found himself reduced to a keener poverty than that of his mansarde garret. After all this accumulation of work, all this expenditure of genius, to think that he did not yet have an assured living! He had frightful attacks of depression, but they had no sooner passed than his will power was as strong as ever, his fever for work redoubled, and his visionary gaze discerned the fair horizons of hope as vividly as though they were already within reach of his hand. Then he would shut himself into his room, breaking off all ties with the social world, or else would flee into the provinces, far from the dizzy whirl of Paris.

Thus it happened that he made several sojourns at Sache in 1831, and that he set out for it once again in 1832, determined upon a lengthy absence. Mme. de Castries had left Paris and had asked him to join her at the waters of Aix in September; but, before he could permit himself to take this trip, he must needs have the sort of asylum for work that awaited him in Touraine.

M. de Margonne, his host, welcomed him like a son each time that he arrived. He had entire liberty to live at the chateau precisely as he chose. He was not required to be present at meals, nor to conform to any of the social conventions which might have interfered with the most profitable employment of his time. If, in the absorption of working out the scheme of the task which he had in progress, he was sometimes irritable and sullen, no one took offence at his attitude. When he had not yet reached the stage of the actual writing, and was merely composing his drama within his powerful imagination, he arose early in the morning and set off upon long walks across country, sometimes solitary and silent, sometimes getting into conversation with the people he met and asking them all sorts of questions. He had no other source of amusement, for he did not care for hunting, and, as to fishing, he made no success of it, for he forgot to pull in the fish after they had taken the hook!

"The only games that interested him were those that demanded brain-work," writes a relative to M. de Margonne, M. Salmon de Maison-Rouge, in a vivid account of Balzac's visits to Sache. "My father, who prided himself upon playing a very good game of checkers, on one occasion tried a game with him. After several moves my father said, "Why, Monsieur de Balzac, we are not playing Give-away! You are letting me take all your men; you are not playing the game seriously." "Indeed, I am," rejoined Balzac, "as seriously as possible," and he continued to let his men be taken. At last he had only one man left, but he had so managed the moves that, without my father being aware of it, this last man was in a position to take all the men my father had left in one single swoop,—and there were a good many, for M. de Balzac had taken only six up to that move. From that time onward my father regarded him as one of the keenest minds that had ever lived." (Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Touraine, Volume XII.)

But Balzac was not staying at Sache for the purpose of playing checkers, and in the same notice M. Salmon tells of his habits of work, on the strength of an account given by M. de Margonne:

"He had a big alarm-clock," he writes, "for he slept very well and very soundly, and he set the alarm for two o'clock in the morning. Then he prepared himself some coffee over a spirit lamp, together with several slices of toasted bread; and then started in to write in bed, making use of a desk so constructed that he could freely draw up his knees beneath it. He continued to write in this manner until five o'clock in the evening, taking no other nourishment than his coffee and his slices of toasted bread.

"At five o'clock he arose, dressed for dinner, and remained with his hosts in the drawing-room until ten o'clock, the hour at which he withdrew to go to bed. And he never in the least modified this settled routine."

These sojourns at Sache were longer or shorter according to the stage of his work and the state of his purse. The servants at the chateau had learned to tell from his expression whether he was prosperous or hard-up; when he felt poor he met them with an affable air and kindly words, for that was all he had to give them; when he was rich he moved among them with the air of a prince. They pardoned his haughty manner because he was generous. M. de Margonne often aided him with loans, but in order to keep him as long as possible, he never gave him the money until the moment of his departure.

On leaving Paris for he knew not how long, Honore de Balzac entrusted his interests to his mother. They were of such opposite temperaments, the one imaginative and extravagant, staking his whole life and fortune on fabulous figures, and the other precise, calculating and rather austere, that they could hardly be expected to understand each other, and frequent clashes had blunted all their tenderer impulses. Mme. de Balzac could not understand her son's blunders, and blamed him severely for them. She suffered from his apparently dissipated life, his love of luxury, his belief in his own greatness, of which no evidence had yet been offered to her matter-of-fact mind. Still wholly unaware of his genius, she could not fail to misjudge him. Yet she had already sacrificed herself once to save him from bankruptcy; and, with all her frowning and grumbling, she would never refuse her aid and experience when he asked for it.

It was Mme. de Balzac who undertook to see the publishers and magazine editors, to pass upon the contracts, to follow up the negotiations already under way, and to conclude them; in short, she represented her son in all respects in his badly involved business relations. From a distance he supervised operations, with a mathematical keenness of vision, and his mother assumed the responsibility of carrying out his wishes, bringing to the contest all her qualities of vigour, clear perception and crafty dealings. Honore de Balzac did not spare her. For he estimated her endurance by his own; and no sooner was he installed at Sache than he began to give her instructions that were little short of orders. She must copy The Grocer, which the Silhouette had published, send him a copy of Contes Bruns, obtain from Mme. de Berny a volume of The Chouans with her corrections, read the article on Bernard Palissy in the great Biographie Universelle, copy it, and make note of all the works that Palissy had written or which had been written about him, then hurry with those notes to M. de Mame, the book-seller,—whom she was to present with copies of volumes 3 and 4 of Scenes of Private Life, telling him that Honore had had a fall and could not leave the house,—and ask him to procure the works on her list,—then go to Laure, and read the notice on Bernard Palissy in "Papa's Biography," to see whether any other works are mentioned which were not included in the Biographie Universelle, and to buy elsewhere whatever M. de Mame did not have, if they were not too dear, and send them all as soon as possible. These works were all needed by Balzac as documents for the Search for the Absolute, which was meant to conclude the fourth volume of Philosophic Tales, published by Gosselin,—but probably they did not reach him in time, for the Search for the Absolute did not appear until 1834, and its place in the Tales was taken by the Biographic Notice of Louis Lambert.

To these express recommendations regarding his work Balzac added orders relative to his household. He "desired" that Leclercq should take out the horses half an hour each day; he concerned himself in regard to his outstanding debts, and he begged his mother to find out what he owed for June and July, so that he could get her the money.

Those few months of fashionable life and his frequenting aristocratic clubs had put his affairs in a piteous state. Mme. de Balzac drew up a balance sheet, without any attempt to spare him, and pointed out just what sacrifices were necessary. He was in no position to meet the heavy demands, in spite of his desperate toil. A gleam of hope, however, came in the midst of his distress, for his friends at Sache held out prospects of a wealthy marriage; but this hope was an elusive one: the prospective bride was not expected in Touraine until the month of October, and how in the meantime was he to pay his pressing debts? He calculated the utmost that he could earn, he assumed certain advances, he added up and with the help of his optimism he swelled his prospective receipts, yet not sufficiently to satisfy his creditors. He groaned, for he did not wish to sell at a loss what he had acquired with such difficulty, despoil himself, strip himself bare like a St. John;—then his energy reawoke and his self-confidence enabled him to accept the hard test. He consented to give up his horses,—for whose feed he was still owing, since he could not feed them on poetry, as he humorously wrote to Mme. de Girardin,—and his cabriolet. What matter? He was strong enough to rebuild the foundations of his fortune!

From now on Honore de Balzac thought of nothing but his work. He wrote his Biographical Notice of Louis Lambert in thirty days and fifteen nights; but this effort was so prodigious that an apoplectic stroke prostrated him and he came very near dying. He endured his financial anxieties and empty purse, upheld by the certainty of his own genius. He knew how much unfinished work there was in the first version of his books and he had spells of artistic despair, but they were brief, for he relied on his strength of will to bring his writings to the perfection of which he dreamed. "This Biographic Notice of Louis Lambert," he wrote to Laure, "is a work in which I have tried to rival Goethe and Byron, to out-do Faust and Manfred; and the tilt is not over yet, for the proof sheets are not yet corrected. I do not know whether I shall succeed, but this fourth volume of Philosophic Tales ought to be a final reply to my enemies, and ought to show my incontestable superiority." When his family became concerned over his precarious situation, and the complications in which he had entangled himself, Balzac answered their reproaches by prophesying the future: "Yes, you are right," he said to Laure, "I shall not stop, I shall go on and on until I attain my goal, and you will see the day when I shall be numbered among the great minds of my country." Then, in the same letter, he added, for his mother's benefit: "Yes, you are right, my progress is real and my infernal courage will be rewarded. Persuade my mother to think so too, dear sister; tell her to show me the charity of a little patience; her devotion will be rewarded! Some day, I hope, a little glory will pay her for everything! Poor mother! The imagination with which she endowed me is a perpetual bewilderment to her; she cannot tell north from south nor east from west; and that sort of journeying is fatiguing, as I know from experience!

"Tell my mother that I love her as I did when I was a child. Tears overcome me as I write these lines, tears of tenderness and despair, for I foresee the future, and I shall need that devoted mother on the day of my triumph! But when will that day come?"

Lastly, he explained the necessity of his isolation and excused himself for it: "Some day, when my works are developed, you will realise that it required many an hour to think out and write so many things; then you will absolve me for all that has displeased you, and you will pardon, not the egoism of the man (for he has none), but the egoism of the thinker and worker."

Towards the middle of July he left Sache in order to go to Angouleme, to visit Mme. Carraud, whose husband had been appointed Inspector of the Powder Works, just outside the town. He arrived there on the 17th, intending to stay five weeks and happy to have reached this friendly asylum. Mme. Carraud was one of the women who had the most faith in Balzac; she was the recipient of his confidences, even the most delicate ones; and when his conduct displeased her she did not hesitate to take him to task. In her home Honore was treated as a son of the family, and Commander Carraud also welcomed him with cordial affection. In their house, just as at Sache, he kept on with his work, for "I must work" was his life-long cry, which he sometimes uttered blithely, in the luminous joy of creation, and sometimes with a horrible breathlessness, as though he was gradually being crushed by the weight of his superhuman task. But he never succumbed. From the moment of his arrival at the Powder Works, notwithstanding the fatigue of the journey, he hardly gave himself time to clasp the hands of his friends before he plunged into the concluding chapters of Louis Lambert; and even when he was not writing he gave himself no rest, but set about the preparation of new works. He led an even more cloistered life here than at Sache, interrupting all correspondence excepting business letters to his mother. For he was bent upon gaining two things, money and fame. Besides, there were the corrections to be made in The Chouans, in the fourth volume of the Philosophic Tales, and he was writing The Battle (which never was published), the Contes Drolatiques, the Studies of Women, the Conversations between Eleven o'Clock and Midnight, La Grenadiere (written in one night), and The Accursed Child, and at the same time was planning The Country Doctor, one of his most important works.

Meanwhile, Mme. Carraud was proud of her guest. She entertained her friends at the Powder Works, the father and mother of Alberic Second, and M. Berges, principal of the high school, who was later to support Balzac's candidacy in Angouleme. The local paper, the Charentais, had announced the presence of the author of The Magic Skin, and when he went to have his hair cut by the barber, Fruchet, in the Place du Marche, he was the object of public attention. The young men of the democratic club called upon him and assured him that they would support his candidacy, in spite of his aristocratic opinions. Balzac awoke to a consciousness of the value of his name, and in the letters to his mother dealing with business relations with his publishers assumed a more commanding tone. She need not trouble herself further, he wrote, in calling on magazine editors; she was to send for M. Pichot, editor of the Revue de Paris, to come to her house, and she was to lay down certain conditions, which he could accept or refuse, according to whether he wanted more of Balzac's copy or not. Pichot must agree in writing to pay two hundred francs a page, with no reduction for blank spaces. Balzac was to be at liberty to reprint the published articles in book form, and no disagreeable paragraph in reference to himself or his works was to be published in the magazine. So much for M. Pichot! Next, she was to summon M. Buloz, of the Revue des Deux Mondes, to come in his turn to her house, and here are the detailed instructions which Mme. de Balzac was to follow in his case: "You will show him the manuscript, without letting him take it with him, because you are only an agent and do not know the usual customs. Be very polite.

"You will tell him that I wish him to write a letter promising not to print anything displeasing to me in his magazine, either directly or indirectly;

"That he shall give a receipt for all outstanding accounts, with settlement in full up to September 1, 1832, between me and the Revue;

"That my contributions are to be printed in the largest sized type;

"And paid at the rate of two hundred francs a page, without deduction for blank spaces.

"After he has agreed in writing to these terms, let him have The Orphans (the definitive title of which was La Grenadiere);

"Buloz must have a good article written on the Scenes and the fourth volume of the Philosophic Tales."

Having taken this masterful tone, Balzac gave his mother this final practical recommendation, never to give any credit to the periodical and to demand the money immediately after publication of the article!

Having made all his plans in detail, Balzac left Angouleme on August 22, 1832, in order to join Mme. de Castries at the waters of Aix. It was an amorous adventure, yet he did not enter into it without certain misgivings, for he did not know whether the Duchess was sincere or whether she was playing with his feelings. Nevertheless, he set out joyously, although lightly equipped in the way of money,—Commander Carraud was obliged to lend him a hundred and fifty francs,—but with several stories begun and plenty of work on hand, for nothing, not even the hope of being loved by a woman of high position, could make him forget his work. He arrived at Limoges, where he saw Mme. Nivet, Mme. Carraud's sister, who had bought him some enamels, and to whom he applied to superintend his orders of porcelain. Faithful to his method of documentation, he visited the sights of the city rapidly, within a few hours, and such was his keenness of vision and tenacity of memory that he was able afterwards to describe it all exactly, down to the slightest details. On the very evening after his arrival at Angouleme he set forth for Lyons, but the journey was fated not to be made without an accident, for in descending from an outside seat of the coach, at Thiers, Balzac struck his knee against one of the steps so violently that—in view of his heavy weight—he received a painful wound on his shin. He was tended at Lyons, the wound healed, and he profited by his enforced quiet to correct Louis Lambert and to add to it those "last thoughts" which form one of the highest monuments of human intelligence.

Honore de Balzac installed himself at Aix, near Mme. de Castries. He was happy, for she had received him with a thousand charming coquetries; and he had paid his court to her, yet he did not interrupt his work for a single day! "I have a simple little chamber," he wrote to Mme Carraud, "from which I can see the entire valley. I force myself pitilessly to rise at five o'clock in the morning, and I work beside my window until five-thirty in the afternoon. My breakfast, an egg, is sent in from the club. Mme. de Castries has some good coffee made for me. At six o'clock we dine together, and I pass the evening with her."

Balzac lived economically. His chamber cost him two francs a day and his breakfast fifteen sous. Yet, after having rendered an account of his expenses to his mother, he was obliged to ask her for money; and he played her another of his characteristic neat little tricks. At Aix he had happened to run across a certain Auguste Sannegou, to whom he owed eleven hundred francs. And, as the latter had just been losing rather heavily, he offered to reimburse him, an offer which Sannegou lost no time in accepting with pleasure. Consequently it became necessary for Mme. de Balzac to send her son the eleven hundred francs post-haste, plus two hundred francs which he needed for his personal expenses. His mother made the sacrifice,—for he sent her a beautiful account of perspective revenues: 3,000 francs from the Revue de Paris, 2,000 francs for La Bataille, 2,000 francs for a volume of Contes Drolatiques, 5,000 for four new volumes to be brought out by Mame, total 9,000 francs,—and after he received the money he acknowledged that he paid only half the sum due to Sannegou, and kept the rest for a trip to Italy.

The Fitz-James family came to rejoin the duchess; Balzac was exultant; he had been exceedingly well treated and had been promised a seat as deputy, if a general election took place; and he was to go to Rome in the same pleasant company. But he lacked money, and the sums which his mother was about to collect in Paris were destined to meet maturing notes. Besides, he was anxious to finish, without further delay, The Country Doctor, which he announced to his publisher, Mame, in triumphant terms:

"Be doubly attentive, Master Mame!" he wrote. "I have been for a long time imbued with a desire for that form of popular fame which consists in selling many thousands of copies of a little 18mo volume like Atala, Paul and Virginia, The Vicar of Wakefield, Manon Lescaut, Perrault, etc., etc. The multiplicity of editions offsets the lack of a number of volumes. But the book must be one which can pass into all hands, those of the young girl, the child, the old man, and even the nun. When the book once becomes known,—which will take a long or a short time, according to the talent of the author and the ability of the publisher,—it becomes a matter of importance. For example: the Meditations of Lamartine, of which sixty thousand copies were sold; the Ruins by Volny, etc.

"Accordingly, this is the spirit in which my book is conceived, a book which the janitor's wife and the fashionable lady can both read. I have taken the New Testament and the Catechism, two books of excellent quality, and have wrought my own from them. I have laid the scene in a village,—and, for the rest, you will read it in its entirety, a thing which rarely happens to a book of mine,"

for this work Balzac demanded a franc a volume, or seventy-five centimes at least, and an advance of a thousand francs. This sum was indispensable if he was to go to Italy. The trip began in October, under happy auspices, and on the 16th they stopped over at Geneva. From there Balzac sent his mother two samples of flannel which he had worn over his stomach. He wanted her to show them to M. Chapelain, a practitioner of medical magnetism, in order to consult him regarding a malady which he suspected that he had, and ask him where it was located and what treatment he should follow. Balzac was a believer in occult sciences, and once before, during the epidemic of cholera in 1832, he wrote to M. Chapelain, asking if he could not discover the origin of the scourge and find remedies capable of stopping it. It was not only magnetism that interested him, but clairvoyance as well, fortune tellers and readers of cards, to whom he attributed an acuteness of perception unknown to ordinary natures.

This enjoyable trip was destined to end at Geneva, so far as Balzac was concerned. Whether he realised that Mme. de Castries was merely playing with his affections, or whether his pride was hurt by some unlucky phrase, no one knows, but he suddenly deserted his companions and returned to France, offering as a pretext the urgency of his literary work. This adventure left an open wound, and it took more than five years to cure him. He suffered cruelly, and we get an echo of his pain in the line in the Country Doctor, "For wounded hearts, darkness and silence." He avenged himself on Mme. de Castries by writing the Duchess of Langeais, in which he showed how a society woman amused herself by torturing a sensitive and sincere gentleman.